Koala Chlamydia: Is The Koala Endangered Because Of The STD?

By Philip Ross on April 26, 2013 11:51 AM EDT

koala chlamydia
Koalas, which were once hunted almost to the point of extinction, are now threatened by a much smaller and illusive predator: chlamydia. (Photo: Creative Commons/David Iliff)

The koala, an important native symbol of Australia, may be in danger from a predator of microscopic size. Chlamydia, a common sexually transmitted disease, or STD, among humans, also infects koalas and threatens to endanger the furry marsupial population.

Deadly Koala Chlamydia Epidemic

BBC reports that chlamydia infections among Australia's koalas are causing a devastating epidemic, with some koala population infection rates reaching 90 percent. One wildlife hospital in Queensland treated 300 cases in 2012 and even created "koala wards" -- a series of open-air enclosures -- to treat the koala chlamydia outbreak year-round.

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Koala chlamydia, a different strain of the STD than the one that infects humans, is a dangerous disease for the koalas because it can cause blindness, infertility and even death. Koalas of all ages -- even the joeys, a term for baby koalas -- are at risk of the disease, spreading the STD sexually as well as through body fluids like breast milk.

According to National Geographic, koalas, which once numbered in the millions, were hunted almost to the point of extinction during the 1920s and 1930s, mainly for their fur. But because of rigorous reintroduction efforts, koalas inhabit a vast part of their former territory, with somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 of them currently in the wild.

Still, the koala population is not out of the woods quite yet. "Last year the Australian government listed koalas in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory as a threatened species," BBC reports. "Some are even warning the animal could face extinction if more is not done to protect it."

In some areas, koala populations have plummeted as much as 80 percent over the past 10 years.

It's not just chlamydia that claims koala lives. Human activity like urban sprawl also endangers the koala, an animal which requires about a hundred trees each, National Geographic reports. Cars and dogs are also affecting koala populations.

STDs Affect Animals And Humans Alike

In humans, chlamydia is the most common bacterial STD, especially among teenagers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, chlamydia infects an estimated 2.86 million people every year in the U.S.

Symptoms of chlamydia in humans include a burning sensation when urinating, and a discharge from the penis or vagina -- although many people will show no symptoms.

Chlamydia is treated and cured with antibiotics. Condoms are the best way to prevent receiving or giving chlamydia.

According to Discover magazine, STDs are pretty common in animals as they are in humans; even birds and insects can get them.

Also, humans have acquired some of our STDs from animals. "Two or three of the major STDs have come from animals," Alonso Aguirre, a veterinarian and vice president for conservation medicine at Wildlife Trust, told Discover.

He said that gonorrhea was transmitted to humans from cattle, syphilis came from sheep, and AIDS came from monkeys (it is believed that hunters got the infection from chimpanzee blood).

The most common STD in animals today, according to Discover, is brucellosis, or undulant fever, an infection among domestic livestock. The bacterial disease, which occurs in mammals including dogs, goats, deer and rats, can be spread sexually or through other means -- cattle, for example, can get the disease from eating the placentas of aborted fetuses, which is apparently quite common among the mammals.

Symptoms of brucellosis include inflammation of the tests, uterine infections and even miscarriage. Humans can get the infection from infected milk.

Can The Koala Be Saved From STD Epidemic?

Fortunately, just like in humans, koala chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics. However, the koala must be quarantined for the duration of the treatment, which can last a few months, before it can be put back into the wild.

According to Grist, scientists in the Australian state of Victoria have discovered that the chlamydia affecting koalas there is not the same strain of the infection elsewhere and may offer some clues as to how to treat the infection.

"Scientists think they may have found the 'holy grail' of the koala immune system, a gene called interferon gamma, which may prevent koalas from contracting these rampant and deadly diseases," Grist reports.

The koala genome will need to be fully mapped, however, before scientists can verify that interferon gamma can help preserve the Australian koala population. It's a pricy endeavor which will cost $5.2 million, according to Grist, but it could result in the iconic marsupial becoming chlamydia free.

Read more from iScience Times:

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Lion Kills Heron: Watch Attack At Amsterdam Zoo [VIDEO]

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