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In Uganda’s Zika Forest, global health scare seems a world away

Saheli March 21, 2016 Health Comments Off on In Uganda’s Zika Forest, global health scare seems a world away

In a tiny patch of tall trees and tangled undergrowth near the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, Zika-carrying mosquitoes buzz around local people who are unperturbed by the global health emergency that the virus has triggered.

“Zika? That one I have never heard about – what kind of disease is that?” said Julius Makumbi, 38, a motorbike taxi rider who lives near the forest.

His nonchalance is understandable. This may be the birthplace of Zika – the virus took its name from the forest after being found here nearly 70 years ago – but there is no record of it causing health problems in the area.

Julius Lutwama, a Ugandan virologist who has researched mosquito-borne viruses, including Zika, for 31 years, believes Zika is unlikely to be a threat here because Africans appear to have resistance.

“There may be some kind of immunity,” Lutwama told Reuters in an interview, although he added there have never been any tests to ascertain that.

“We have so many diseases which are related to Zika, they may confer some kind of immunity to the African body,” Lutwama said, pointing to similar viruses like dengue, West Nile virus and yellow fever that have afflicted the region for years.

The strain of Zika now infecting people in Brazil and spreading panic in the Americas also seems to be different, which may be good news for now but suggests Africa could yet be at risk if the Brazilian type crosses the Atlantic.

There are already reasons for concern, with more than 7,000 Zika infections in the Cape Verde archipelago off West Africa, including the first case last week of a baby born with microcephaly, the brain disorder thought to be linked to Zika.

Zika was first identified in a rhesus monkey by two Scots, virologist George Dick and entomologist Alexander Haddow, while they were researching yellow fever in the Zika Forest in 1947.

Today, birds chirp incessantly, snakes and a leopard lurk, grey monkeys hop about in tree branches and squirrels streak across in the undergrowth.

A 120-foot-high steel tower in the forest, erected in 1962, is still used by scientists to collect mosquitoes for research into myriad viruses, affecting humans and animals, but there is little other sign in the 15-acre Zika Forest of its role in one of the world’s major biggest healthy crises.

A cabin labeled “information centre” sits rusting on the northern edge of the forest, with one door hanging on a single hinge.

Inside, there are only a few clothes and personal effects belonging to Gerald Mukisa, 50, the forest’s keeper and guide. Nearby are two huts that serve as living quarters for him and his five children.

He says the forest has been neglected and worries about encroachment by developers.

“Those houses are not supposed to be there,” Mukisa says, pointing to a couple of residences that he says were built on land that was part of the government-owned forest.

Some woodcutters also sneak into the forest and cut down trees to sell as fuel, diminishing biodiversity in the tiny forest that boasts as many as 136 tree species.

“I have asked for at least a gun to help scare people who want to do illegal activities but no one is listening,” Mukisa said. “I am helpless.”


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