Devastated by bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020, Australian koalas are also threatened by a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Nearly 400 koalas will be vaccinated against chlamydia in a trial that began Friday.
Chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease in humans, is thought to affect half of all koalas in parts of Australia today. “This is a severe disease that causes debilitating conjunctivitis, bladder infections and sometimes infertility,” Amber Gillett, veterinarian at Australian Zoo Hospital and research coordinator at the University of the Sunshine Coast said in a statement. Researchers say this bacterial disease, which can be passed from mother to newborn, can also cause blindness.
In humans, chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics, but treatment in koalas has shown failure and, in some cases, potentially harmful side effects. The researchers hope to stop transmission of the disease, which harms the reproduction of marsupials, which has already been severely weakened. Each koala will receive a dose of the vaccine and fed a microchip before it is released into the wild.
Estimates of koala numbers vary, as it is difficult to count in the wild. A 2016 study by the University of Queensland calculated that there are about 330,000 koalas left in Australia. A study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature confirmed that more than 60,000 of them were killed, injured or otherwise affected by devastating bushfires in Australia in 2019 and early 2020.