Into Zika’s heart: the Ugandan forest where virus was found

January 31, 2016 9:45 am
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The virus, linked to a surge in birth defects, is "spreading explosively", World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan said this week/AFP
The virus, linked to a surge in birth defects, is “spreading explosively”, World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan said this week/AFP
ZIKA, Uganda, Jan 31 – Down winding paths through dense jungles, Gerald Mukisa kicks up the dry leaves noisily with his feet to provide warning sounds, noting that the late afternoon heat is “snake time”.

The forest is calm. Only the sound of insects, birdsong and the rustle of monkeys in the jungle canopy above disturb the air.

It was here in the thick woodland of Zika forest, some 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Uganda’s capital Kampala, that the mosquito-borne Zika virus was first discovered in 1947.

The virus, linked to a surge in birth defects, is “spreading explosively”, World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan said this week. An emergency meeting on the outbreak is due on February 1.

Mukisa, who has worked to guard the forest for the past seven years, only found out about the virus that takes its name two weeks ago.

“A few people who live nearby the forest and have heard about it are getting worried,” he said. “Many others don’t know about it.”

Days ago, the tropical Zika forest was a little-known reserve visited only by bird watchers and scientists.

“Students come every week, coming from all over the world,” said Mukisa, 50, proudly showing off a guest book with signatures and comments from the US, Canada, France and Germany, among other countries. “There are so many types of trees, and all sorts of birds.”

– Jimmy Carter came to birdwatch –

Most local cases of the virus were mild, resulting in rash, fever, and red eyes in a small fraction of cases. Global health authorities barely took notice until an outbreak on the Micronesian island of Yap in 2007.

An outbreak that began last year in Brazil has been blamed for a surge in birth defects with thousands of babies born with small heads, an incurable and sometimes fatal condition known as microcephaly.

Uganda’s health ministry is keen to point out it has no known cases of the virus, and that the current Americas’ outbreak did not originate in East Africa.

“We have not recorded a case in Uganda in several years and we don’t have such an outbreak,” the ministry said in a statement.

“As a country, our disease and epidemic response systems are strong as evidenced in the way we have handled past viral hemorrhagic fever outbreaks.”

Uganda has suffered outbreaks of Ebola in the past, as well as a mysterious illness known as “nodding disease”.

Today the forest, close to the main highway from Uganda’s international airport at Entebbe to the nearby capital Kampala, remains a research site for the Uganda Virus Research Institue (UVRI), an environmental health and protection agency founded in 1936, which is headquarted some 15 kilometres (nine miles) away.

“Warning! Uganda Virus Research Institute Land. Don’t Trespass”, reads one metal sign amid the thick vegetation, the red paint peeling in the sun.

Ruth Mirembe, 24, who lives beside the forest, learnt about the virus on Facebook. “I’m not worried,” she said.

– Virus changes over time –

Part 1 | Part 2

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