Major outbreak of bacterial disease affects hundreds of California sea lions

The Marine Mammal Center is facing the second largest outbreak of leptospirosis in California sea lions in its recorded history, according to the center.

This year, 220 sea lions at the Marin Headlands-based center have tested positive for the bacterial infection, which affects their kidneys. Outbreaks of the potentially fatal infection typically occur every four to five years, according to Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the center.

The last outbreak in 2011 led to the admittance of nearly 200 sea lion patients to the center’s hospital. The center has been collecting records, blood and urine samples for more than four decades.

“Our long history of rehabilitation and commitment to scientific research allows us to see the disease patterns over multiple decades and better respond to these types of events,” Johnson said in a statement.

Though sea lions diagnosed with leptospirosis are treated with antibiotics and other supportive care, roughly two-thirds of the animals with the infection do not survive, center officials said.

Other animal species, including humans and dogs, can become infected with the bacteria through contact with contaminated urine, water and soil.

Officials at the center urge the public to maintain a safe distance of at least 50 feet from marine mammals and to keep their dogs away.

They can also call the center’s 24-hour hotline at (415) 289-7325 to report any sick marine mammals. To donate to help the center treat current sea lion patients, people can visit MarineMammalCenter.org/donate.

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