The beluga whale is an Arctic cetacean species with a circumpolar distribution and is hunted for subsistence use by indigenous peoples. Hunters are increasingly concerned about the health of the belugas they harvest and feed to their families. Health monitoring is carried out opportunistically in Alaska while hunt monitoring in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) in Canada has been has been ongoing since the 1950's.
Herpesviruses are perhaps one of the most successful viruses, capable of infecting most vertebrates which they have done for millions of years. Herpesviruses cause a variety of diseases in humans and animals and most of us are familiar with cold sores and chickenpox both caused by "herpes". Whales and dolphins are known to be infected as well, but herpes infection has not been extensively studied in belugas.
We were able to isolate a new species of herpesvirus, "Beluga Whale Herpes Virus" (BWHV), from both healthy and sick belugas from the ISR and Alaska. This is the first report of the isolation of a herpesvirus from belugas. The virus was found in three different populations of belugas and we hypothesize that it is circulating in all populations of belugas world-wide.
By examining the virus's genetic sequences we found it to be closely related to other herpes species infecting whales and also distantly related to human herpesviruses. This species of virus does not appear to cause disease in humans and poses no threat to hunters coming in contact with infected belugas.
We were also able to isolate the virus from some skin lesions in sick Alaskan belugas that had tissue pathologies consistent with herpes infection. This finding indicates that BWHV is able to cause significant disease in at least some individuals.
Only through continued health monitoring and assessments on healthy as well as dead/stranded belugas can we effectively understand the threats that infectious diseases pose to belugas. Wildlife managers can use the information provided by studies such as this one to ensure that we have sustainable beluga populations for future generations.