Safeguarding koalas from STD

by Dan Westell, CBCNews.ca

Koalas are a contender for the cutest animal in the world. The small, iconic Australian mammal (average under 10 kilograms) lives on eucalyptus leaves and looks like an ewok, the furry heroes of the Star Wars episode Return of the Jedi.

But, sadly, they are prone to chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, and it appears to be spreading.

"As much as 40 to 50 per cent of koalas coming into care in both Queensland and NSW [New South Wales] are showing clinical signs of the disease and it seems to be getting worse," said Prof. Peter Timms from Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.

Chlamydia can cause serious side effects, including blindness, pneumonia and female infertility. That is especially problematic, because the koala population is already under pressure due to the shrinking of eucalyptus forests in Australia, their source of food.

Timms and colleagues are ready to test a chlamydia vaccine for koalas, based on work with human vaccines. The test, set to begin this year, will study the immune response, and if that's positive, the researchers will try to determine if the response can protect the bears from the disease.

The researchers need more money to continue their studies. "We are looking for corporate or individual support to fund further research in this area," Timms said.