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Nature: Chlamydia vaccine is being tested on koalas in Australia

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Chlamydia vaccine is being tested on koalas in Australia as research shows STI affects more than 50 percent of the population in some areas

  • Chlamydia rates are high in South East Queensland and New South Wales
  • In koalas, the infection can lead to blindness, infertility and even death
  • The vaccine has been successful in eight previous Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials
  • Rollout at Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital Wildlife includes just 400 koalas










Hundreds of koalas in Australia are being vaccinated against chlamydia, an infection that can lead to blindness, infertility and even death for the marsupials.

Experts have reported that in some areas – including southeastern Queensland and New South Wales – the disease affects more than 50 percent of koala populations.

However, researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) hope their vaccination program will play a key role in the animals’ long-term survival.

Like humans, koalas can get chlamydia through sexual intercourse, but the infection can also be passed from mothers to their young through porridge, a type of food feces.

Hundreds of koalas in Australia are being vaccinated against chlamydia, an infection that can lead to blindness, infertility and even death for the marsupials. In the photo: a koala

WHAT DOES THE RISK OF KOALAS WITH EXTERMINATION?

Koala populations along the east coast of Australia have declined due to several factors.

Habitat loss from deforestation, diseases such as chlamydia, predator attacks, fire and traffic accidents all contribute to their decline.

They were previously thought to only get fluid from leaves, but a revolutionary new study has found that they are actually able and willing to drink from standing water.

Koalas cannot simply eat more leaves to make up for the reduced water content in their favorite foods, as they are limited by how much they can devour by leaf toxins.

They are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List that tracks at-risk animals.

“The vaccine has now passed Phase 1 and Phase 2 testing, which has shown that it is completely safe and provides a good immune response and a good level of protection,” said USC microbiologist Peter Timms.

“The vaccine has so far been evaluated in more than 200 koalas in eight smaller trials, both in captive koalas and wild koalas entering animal hospitals, and in koala populations in the wild.

“We are now in the exciting phase of being ready to roll out the vaccine as part of large Phase 3 trials,” he added.

One site for the vaccinations starting today is the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Beerwah, Queensland, where approximately 400 koalas will be treated. The hospital has been involved in the development of the vaccine for several years.

Koalas, Professor Timms explained, will receive the single-dose injection after undergoing routine hospital care, but before being released back into the wild.

“While each of the animals will benefit directly from this vaccination, the trial will also focus on the protection that vaccination provides,” he said.

“All koalas are microchipped and the hospital registers all animals that return for any reason in the next 12 months.”

Other trials in Queensland are planned at the Moggill Koala Rehabilitation Center and RSPCA Wildlife Hospital in Wacol – as well as in several wild koala populations, including those in the Moreton Bay area.

According to Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital Wildlife vet Amber Gillett, chlamydia is one of the top threats to koala populations — and one of the most common reasons the animals are allowed into the facility.

“It’s a cruel disease that causes debilitating conjunctivitis, bladder infections and sometimes infertility,” she explained.

“While many koalas with chlamydia can be treated with traditional antibiotics, some animals cannot be rescued due to the severity of their infection.”

“Having a vaccine that can help prevent both infection and disease severity is a critical element in managing the species.”

“The vaccine has now passed Phase 1 and Phase 2 testing, which has shown it to be completely safe and produce a good immune response and level of protection,” said USC microbiologist Peter Timms, pictured here with a koala bear.

Professor Timms added that – in parallel with the rollout of the trails – the vaccine is also progressing through an official registration process with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA).

However, he added that the procedure is long, complex, highly regulated and expensive.

“The USC vaccine team is well advanced with this phase, including pre-application at the APVMA, conversion of the investigational vaccine to a highly quality controlled version, and collaboration with a vaccine manufacturer,” he said.

“Efforts are now also focused on raising funds to support this critical phase.”

More information about the effort — including how to donate to the vaccination program — can be found on the USC’s website.

WHAT IS CHLAMYDIA AND WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted disease.

It arises from bacteria called chlamydia trachomatis. It is passed on through contact, through vaginal, anal or oral sex.

If left untreated, it can damage a woman’s fallopian tubes and cause infertility. In very rare cases, it can also cause infertility in men.

Other animal species can suffer from chlamydia, with koalas being a well-known example.

Some populations of koalas in Australia have been devastated by the disease, with reports of up to 100 percent infection.

What are the symptoms in humans?

Most people don’t feel any symptoms of chlamydia. Doctors recommend regular STD testing (urine test or Pap smear) to detect it.

However, some experience some side effects.

Symptoms in women:

  • Abnormal Vaginal Discharge
  • Burning sensation when urinating
  • Pain in the eyes
  • Stomach ache
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Vaginal Bleeding

Symptoms in men:

  • Discharge from the penis
  • Burning sensation when urinating
  • Pain and swelling in one or both testicles (rare)

How is it treated?

The infection is easily treated with antibiotics.

Doctors usually prescribe oral antibiotics, most commonly azithromycin (Zithromax) or doxycycline.

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