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Double-whammy: Researchers find second 'AIDS-like' virus killing our koalas

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An AIDS-like virus is plaguing Queensland’s koala populations, suppressing their natural immune systems and leaving them more vulnerable to other threatening health conditions, new research shows.

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A University of Queensland study on more than 150 koalas admitted to the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital on the Gold Coast found that the virus was contributing to the chlamydia epidemic that has been cutting a swathe through endangered koala populations in Queensland and NSW.

It means that by preventing and treating the virus, scientists may be able to help save the koalas and cut the risk of them contracting other diseases.

One of UQ’s leading Covid-19 vaccine researchers, Associate Professor Keith Chappell, said the study that detected the “double-whammy” hitting koalas could lead to new anti-viral medications for koalas and breeding programs to help protect the iconic species.

“We know Queensland and NSW koala populations are heavily impacted by chlamydia infections and a retrovirus, but until now a clear link between the two has not been conclusively established,” Chappell said.

“Our research has found that the amount of retrovirus circulating within an animal’s blood was strongly associated with chlamydia and symptoms like cystitis and conjunctivitis, as well as overall poor health.

“It’s a double whammy for already-endangered koalas.”

Chlamydia can cause painful eye infections and blindness, bladder infections and infertility in koalas and is considered a major reason for plummeting numbers of koalas in wild populations.

As much as 100 per cent of some koala populations have tested positive for the sexually transmitted infection.

Chappell said they found high levels of the virus increased a koala’s risk of chlamydia by over 200 per cent.

Co-author of the study, Dr Michaela Blyton, said the research could lead to new ways to treat populations and reduce the risk of koala extinction.

“The findings from this study are important for conservation, especially as the koala is now listed as endangered and wild populations continue to decline in Queensland and NSW,” Blyton said.

“Research like this helps us understand how the threats facing koalas are interlinked, so we can help find ways to protect the species going forward and closely examine the success of anti-viral medications and breeding programs.”

Currumbin Wildlife Hospital Senior Veterinarian Michael Pyne said this was an important project that would work towards saving koalas.

“This is a major step forward in understanding how retroviruses can affect koalas and the link with other disease, and is a perfect example of the importance of research when saving endangered species,” Pyne said.

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