An increasing number of green sea turtles in Florida continue to suffer from a mysterious tumor-causing disease called fibropapillomatosis. In fact, veterinarians at the Turtle Hospital have been seeing a sharp rise in turtles needing surgical operations for tumor removal.

The tumor can spread from one body part to another, thus requiring turtles to undergo multiple procedures. It is very vital for experts to remove these tumors because it can impede bodily areas where they grow. For example, a tumor that has developed near the eye area may impair vision.

The extent of illness varies depending on the size of the tumor, regardless of the turtles' age. Veterinarians note one young turtle to have multiple underbelly tumors of different sizes, with some as big as a golf ball.

The Turtle Hospital started operating in 1986. For its first year of service, the hospital catered to a total of 12 patients.

In 2015, the hospital had 173 sea turtle patients, of which 119 were diagnosed with Fibropapillomatosis, says hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach.

The hospital has never seen it busiest action until recently. The 18 members of hospital staff, as well as its ambulances cater to patient after patient.

Veterinarian Doug Mader says that in a span of 20 years, the number of patients being seen rose from six to eight per month to six to eight per week.

Turtles spend about a year in the hospital. The species are then released as long as the veterinarians confirm that the turtles are free of tumors. One example of a survivor is Sparty, a green sea turtle that has been declared free of tumors as of Jan. 26. "I'm now tumor free!!!!!" Sparty's page on the hospital website reads.

However, if the tumor lesions reach the lungs and kidneys, outcomes become bleak as there are no other options to save them.

At present, approximately only one in five sea turtles diagnosed with fibropapillomatosis is able to return back to its ocean home, with Zirkelbach calling the species "too sick."

Fibropapillomatosis remains a mystery for experts. Up until now, they have not been able to determine the cause and source of the disease. Some claim that fibropapillomatosis is caused by pollution, climate change and agricultural runoff.

Laboratory studies show that the disease is associated with two types of herpes virus namely retrovirus and papillomavirus. However, the exact, single virus causing the disease has not yet been identified.

Photo: Alaina McDavid | Flickr

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