Koalas get chlamydia vaccine in Australia

Koala in a cage, looking into the camera
A koala named Ernie is released back in nature, after medical treatment for chlamydia, where he had to have one of his eyes removed, Sydney, Australia, July 25, 2020, photo: Reuters/Loren Elliott

Australian koalas will be vaccinated against chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease also found in humans, as part of a trial to prevent the animals from getting sick.

Chlamydia has spread widely among Australian koalas, affecting half the animals in some areas. Male and female koalas can get it from intercourse, and sometimes mothers can give it to their baby, the same as with humans.

“It is a cruel disease that causes debilitating conjunctivitis [pink eye], bladder infections, and at times, infertility,” Amber Gillett, veterinarian at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital and coordinator of research, said in a statement on Friday as the trial began. Antibiotics is an effective treatment for koalas when they have chlamydia.

Researchers hope the vaccine will prevent koalas from getting the disease and will improve their survival and reproduction chances.

Around 400 koalas will get one dose of the chlamydia vaccine. They’ll also be microchipped before being released into the wild.

Scientists don’t exactly know how the first koala got chlamydia, but they think it was from infected farm animals, most likely sheep.

Chlamydia is common under Australian farmed sheep and can cause pneumonia, abortion and arthritis. Researcher Adam Polkinghorn, who studied chlamydia in animals, called it “a really painful disease, the animals suffer“.

Besides chlamydia, the biggest threat to koalas remains habitat loss, caused by wildfires and the rapidly growing human population.

In 2016, scientists said that there were 329,000 koalas in Australia. But since then, there have been bushfires every year, drastically reducing the number of koalas.

Over 60,000 koalas were killed or injured in the Australian bushfires at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has estimated.

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