"Wild animals don't practice safe sex, of course they have STIs!" explains Dr Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a modern day Dr Dolittle and UCLA cardiologist consulting for the Los Angeles zoo. And when you think about it why wouldn't they?
Today is national STI day, and Ladies and Gentlemen, two weeks after the intense partying over New Year, it might be time to think about your sexual health. STIs or Sexually Transmitted Infections are diseases that are passed from one person to another through unprotected sex or in some cases through genital contact. Most STIs often don't show signs of infections at all, which makes the spread of the diseases hard to stop. Two weeks is also the time is takes for the most common types of STIs to become detectable. I'm thinking of chlamydia for example, testing positive in around one in twelve under 25s and on the rise. The appearance of dating applications, such as Tinder, have made finding a sexual partner faster and easier and those who use them seem to be more likely to test positive for STIs, so beware!
But STIs are not limited to humans! Atlantic bottlenose dolphins can get genital warts, baboons suffer from herpes, syphilis is common in rabbits and cats have their own version of AIDS. And not only do animals and humans have STIs, but these might share a common history explains Alonso Aguire, a vet and president for conservation medicine at the Wildlife Trust: "Two or three of the major STIs [in humans] have come from animals. We know, for example, that gonorrhoea came from cattle to humans. Syphilis also came to humans from cattle or sheep many centuries ago, possibly sexually". The most recent and deadliest STI to have jumped from humans to animals has been HIV, which humans got from the simian version of the virus in chimpanzees.
Peter Timms and Ken Beagley from Queensland University in Australia have spent years studying Chlamydia for humans and have just recently switched to Koalas. You wouldn't imagine those fluffy cute cuddly koalas having sex, but they do. A lot. So much so that the wild koala population has been decimated in the past decade partly by chlamydia infections, decreasing the populations up to 80% in some areas. The scientists have had some success at finding a vaccine against the disease in koalas, but further tests are needed to confirm its effectiveness. The research might have a potential for human vaccines against chlamydia, however as there is only 10% similarity between the koala and the human chlamydia, we can't be sure.
Not only do animals help us understand the pathogenicity and dynamics of sexually transmitted infections but studying an STI in an animal can also help us predict its behaviour in humans. For example, animal studies have suggested that the 'viral reservoir' in which HIV lies dormant is established much earlier than previously thought. Studies of the Rhesus monkey showed that the earlier an antiretroviral treatment started, the longer the virus took to rebound or become detectable in the blood, but it was still present. This would explain the late symptoms of the baby 'cured' from HIV last year.
Most drugs that rid us of these diseases have been tested on rats and mice in the labs and animal models are also really important in finding vaccines. "Today, there is no protective vaccine against HIV and it is a priority to find one." states Dr Dr Monsef Benkirane, director of the human genetic CNRS institute in Montpellier and specialist in HIV persistence. "If one day we find a vaccine, it won't be a classic vaccine like we know them today. It will be profoundly new."
So the next time you think about cuddling a koala or swimming with a dolphin consider - or not - about the ways they are helping you have safe sex.