400 Australian Koalas to Be Vaccinated Against Chlamydia in New Trial: 'It Is a Cruel Disease'

About 400 koalas will receive a single dose of the chlamydia vaccine and get microchipped before being sent back into the wild

A koala affected by the recent bushfires is released back into native bushland following treatment at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park on February 21, 2020 in Parndana, Australia.
Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty

Hundreds of koalas in Australia are one step closer to being protected from chlamydia.

About 400 koalas are set to receive a dose of a chlamydia vaccine as part of a trial at Queensland's Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, Reuters and The Guardian reported. Because chlamydia is so pervasive among koalas, those running the trial hope that it will help the species' long-term survival.

The koalas involved in the trial, which kicked off on Friday, will get a jab of vaccine and a microchip, so that they can be tracked, before being sent back into the wild.

Chlamydia, typically a sexually transmitted disease, can also be transferred from mother koalas to their joeys. Some koala populations in areas of south-east Queensland and New South Wales have as high as a 50 percent infection rate, The Guardian reported.

"While this vaccination will directly benefit each of the animals, the trial will also have a focus on the protection provided by vaccination," Peter Timms, professor of microbiology at the University of the Sunshine Coast, said.

Timms and several of his colleagues published a report in Nature last year about their chlamydia vaccine for koalas, which was developed over 10 years and shows promise of being more effective than antibiotics.

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"Unfortunately 10 or even 20 percent of animals that go through the [Australia Zoo] wildlife hospital come back to the hospital. In a lot of cases, if you just treat them with antibiotics, they often come back with chlamydial disease again," Timms told The Guardian.

"We know that it can reduce infection levels," he added of the vaccine, which has already been tested on koalas in eight smaller trials. "We know that the vaccine is safe. It causes no problems at all."

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Amber Gillett, an Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital Wildlife veterinarian and its coordinator of research, called chlamydia "a cruel disease that causes debilitating conjunctivitis, bladder infections and at times, infertility," according to Reuters.

Infected Koalas are also at risk of blindness and even death.

The trial aims to help protect the koala population, which could soon become endangered.

The Australian Koala Foundation reported last month that the species' population had declined by 30 percent in three years, with the animals extinct in 47 electorates in Australia. It's estimated there are anywhere between 32,065 and 57,920 of koalas left across the country.

Brush fires, heat waves, lack of drinking water and land clearing are all contributing factors to the koala population's decline.

"Urgent action to stop land clearing in prime Koala habitat is required if we are to save our beloved national animal from peril," Deborah Tabart, Chair of the Australian Koala Foundation, said last month.

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