Chlamydia Vaccine Could Save The Wild Koala

Koalas are adorable, iconic, and rapidly being decimated

Health-wise, koalas aren’t doing so well. Sure, they’re still staying cool, hanging out in trees and munching on eucalyptus. But they are also dealing with some pretty serious issues, including a loss of habitat, and devestating diseases like chlamydia and a koala retrovirus. Some estimates project that if nothing is done, the species could face extinction in as little as 30 years.

Luckily, some people are working on solutions to the koalas’ plight. Researchers in Australia recently tested a chlamydia vaccine on a sample of koalas and found very favorable results. They observed 60 koalas–30 of which were given the vaccine, and 30 which were not. Some koalas in both the vaccinated and unvaccinated groups already had chlamydia and had symptoms, including eye infections. The BBC reported that seven of eight vaccinated koalas with eye infections started getting better, while four of six unvaccinated koalas with eye infections actually got worse.

“This large trial has confirmed that the vaccine is safe to give to not only captive koalas, but also koalas in the wild,” microbiologist Peter Timms said in a press release. “While these results are very promising, the trial will extend for at least another year. We hope to specifically show a positive effect of the vaccine on disease, not just infection, as well as female reproductive rates.”

Chlamydia in koalas is a very serious disease that can cause blindness, infertility and even death. The two strains of chlamydia that infect koalas (Chlamydia pecorum and Chlamydia pneumoniae) are different from the strain that causes infection in humans (Chlamydia trachomatis) Like the human version, koala chlamydia infections can be treated with antibiotics, but treatments can take months, and the koalas lucky enough to recieve treatment have to stay in captivity for the duration of treatment. By vaccinating koalas in the wild, researchers hope that they can prevent the spread and extent of the disease, without resorting to costly treatment methods. That doesn’t mean the vaccine is totally without cost. Timms, who is heading the project with colleague Adam Polkinghorne, told the Brisbane Times that a lot more money would be required to expand the vaccination project and make a real difference.