Australia's Koalas Have Chlamydia. Now There's Hope for a Vaccine

Readers of a certain age may remember the Qantas ads starting in the 1960s that featured a grumpy koala kvetching about the airline taking visitors to Australia.  Today, getting a snapshot with a koala is nearly a must for tourists to the country.

But many of these animals, which are so important to the Australia’s tourism industry, are sick. From 30 percent to 50 percent of koalas in the wild have a strain of chlamydia related to the bug that causes the disease in humans, says Peter Timms, an Australian microbiologist. It turns out that while koalas can spend as many as 20 hours a day asleep, they make the most of the time they’re awake; male koalas mate with many females. All those mating partners are contributing to a nasty chlamydia outbreak that’s threatening the koala population.

The disease leaves infertile about half the female koalas it infects, putting even more pressure on a population considered “vulnerable” by the governments of Australian states New South Wales and Queensland. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists the koala as “threatened,” and the Brisbane-based Australian Koala Foundation says the animals “are in serious decline,” with less than 80,000 estimated to remain in the wild.

Researchers at Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast announced a breakthrough on Wednesday in the search for a vaccine for koalas. Timms and his colleagues have conducted “the world’s first successful field trial of a vaccine against chlamydia in koalas.” The researchers tested a vaccine on 60 koalas, half of which got the vaccine and the others, the control group, left vaccine-free. Testing after six months in the wild showed all the koalas that got the vaccine chlamydia-free. “Koalas can make a good immune response,” says Timms. “Some people think they’re lazy and sluggish, and maybe their immune response is weakened, but that’s not the case.”

While the news about the chlamydia vaccine trial shows hope for the koalas, the situation for Tasmanian devils is grim. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has been posting the Tasmanian devil on its endangered list since 2008 because of a facial tumor disease that has been killing many of the animals.  The facial cancer, which the animals transmit by biting other devils, can be devastating. The disease “kills all infected devils within months” (PDF), according to the Tasmania Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

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