Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic April 10, 2012 - 5:07 am

Bald bears in Alaska worry U.S. agencies

Sick animals suffer hair loss, skin problems

NUNATSIAQ NEWS
Evidence of alopecia and other skin lesions may be difficult to see unless the bear can be observed closely. In the polar bears that U.S. Geological Service has observed to date, the most common areas affected include the muzzle and face, eyes, ears and neck. The bear in the photo has hair loss and oozing sores on the left side of its neck. The bear was captured by scientists using the immobilizing drug Telazol. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE USGS)
Evidence of alopecia and other skin lesions may be difficult to see unless the bear can be observed closely. In the polar bears that U.S. Geological Service has observed to date, the most common areas affected include the muzzle and face, eyes, ears and neck. The bear in the photo has hair loss and oozing sores on the left side of its neck. The bear was captured by scientists using the immobilizing drug Telazol. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE USGS)

The U.S. Fish and Game Service and U.S. Geological Survey are warning people on the North Slope of Alaska not to eat any meat from sick polar bears, walrus or seals.

The agencies said April 6 that over the past two weeks, nine polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea region near Barrow had observed with alopecia, or loss of fur, and other skin lesions.

The animals were otherwise healthy in appearance and behavior, a news release said, and “the cause and significance of the observed lesions are unknown.”

Similar hair loss has been reported in both wild and captive animals in the past, the release said.

Scientists collected blood and tissues samples from polar bears that had lost hair to see to whether there’s a link between their symptoms and those reported for seals from the same geographical region earlier this year. 

Observations last summer of unusual numbers of ringed seals hauled out on beaches along the Arctic coast of Alaska, and later on, of dead and dying seals with hair loss and skin sores, led to 2011 declaration of an “Unusual Mortality Event” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Some Pacific walruses with similar skin lesions at a coastal haul-out in the same region during the fall appeared to be otherwise healthy.

“Whether the symptoms observed in the seals and walruses are related is unknown,” the new release said.

Ice seals with similar symptoms have also been reported in adjacent regions of Canada and Russia and from the Bering Strait region, it said.

Extensive testing for a wide variety of well-known infectious agents hasn’t yet shown any cause.

And advanced testing techniques for unidentified infectious agents continues as scientists also look for potential causes including man-made and natural biotoxins, radiation, contaminants, auto-immune diseases, nutritional, hormonal and environmental factors.

Until more information becomes available, the two U.S. agencies are recommending that people:

• avoid eating any animals that appear sick or diseased;

• keep dogs from interacting with or eating diseased animals;

• wear rubber gloves when butchering or handling the animals;

• thoroughly wash your hands and all your equipment after touching or butchering an animal; and,

• if you feel sick, contact your local community health care provider immediately.

“Although cooking is a personal choice/preference, it can help kill parasites and bacteria that can be present in raw meat,” the news release said.

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