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July 20, 2017 Morris Animal Foundation funded-researchers in Australia are racing to understand the debilitating and sometimes deadly interaction between koala retrovirus (KoRV) and chlamydia infection as koalas continue to be pushed toward extinction.

“Australia’s iconic koalas are under threat of extinction from several directions, including two infectious diseases; chlamydia and koala retrovirus,” said Dr. Peter Timms, Professor of Microbiology, University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia, and the study’s principal investigator. “Chlamydia can cause debilitating blindness and also major reproductive problems Our research has just shown that these two infectious diseases are interacting, with one of the retrovirus strains making chlamydial infections worse.”

The study team recently published the findings of their work in the journal Scientific Reports. They found that retrovirus variant KoRV-B was a significant risk factor in the development of chlamydial disease in koalas. Koala retrovirus is a newly discovered virus and is in the same family of viruses as HIV and FIV. First identified in 2000, scientists suspected retroviruses might be responsible for disease in koalas as far back as 1987.

The connection between the two illnesses could explain the variation in clinical signs of chlamydia, since retrovirus infection can cause immune suppression, making an animal or person vulnerable to infection. By demonstrating a link between these two infectious agents, wildlife managers, veterinarians and scientists now have new knowledge that may help them devise better treatment and management options, such as drug and/or vaccine therapies.

Koalas were once abundant in Australia but pressure from habitat destruction and disease have pushed these docile herbivores to the brink of extinction, with estimates ranging from 50 percent to 90 percent declines in the overall koala population in the last decade.

The disappearance of wild koalas from Australia, and the loss of conservation populations worldwide, would mean the disappearance of one of the world’s most unique and beloved animals. Morris Animal Foundation is working to preserve and protect wildlife species, including koalas, from the diseases that threaten their very existence. Thanks to talented researchers, and our donors who support them, we are making important progress every day.