A few years ago, a search of Zika Forest on the internet would have brought results showing the beautiful sceneries of the tropical forest in Uganda. But not anymore. The primary results that hits your screen now is the association of the forest with the Zika virus linked to a surge in birth defects in Brazil not to mention a few (21) other territories in the world.
Located just 23 kilometers (15 miles) from the Uganda capital, Kampala, not many Ugandans or people in the world know about the Zika Tropical Forest.
Until most recently, the forest has been known to attract lovers of birdwatching and scientists. The most prominent visitor to have made his expedition in the Zika Forest is the former Us President Jimmy Carter who came on a bird-watching tour. Zika forest is also a field station for the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), an environmental health and protection agency founded in 1936.
Zika or Ziika as it is commonly referred to in Luganda language means overgrown.
UVRI has a 120-feet steel research tower which was initially in Mpanga forest but was later relocated to Zika in 1962 through the funding from World Health Organization (WHO). The narrow metal tower provides travelers on Uganda safaris to enjoy watching monkeys and birds jumping from one tree to another in the thick Zika canopy. Extensive behavioral and ecological studies have been carried out on this tower located within the forest.
The origin of the devastating virus
In 1947, by accident, scientists (American, European and Ugandan) bumped into the Zika virus while carrying out research on Yellow Fever, another viral disease in Zika forest.
Zika virus which according to WHO, is spreading explosively since its discovery in the Ugandan tropical forest, only two cases of the virus have been confirmed in Uganda in the past seven decades.
As of now the virus is spread by a vector- a mosquito- of Aedes species. According to Dr Julius Lutwama, despite the disease having originated in East Africa, there are just two cases reported because apparently, the mosquito types that would spread the virus to humans don’t often get to reach the general population. What’s more, the Aedes in Uganda (Aedes aegypti formosus), does not bite humans but targets animals, unlike Aedes aegypti aegypti that is transmitting the Zika virus in Latin America which prefers humans.
Dr Lutwama told Associated Press that there have been no reported cases of birth defects like microcephaly (babies born with small heads) in Uganda like it has been in Latin America.
To clearly understand the spread of the virus in Africa and especially in Uganda where it originated, there is need to carry out a more informed study of the virus among the people.
Could the virus be in Africa and go undetected?
Research shows that the only symptoms associated with the virus are mild and are often confused of some other illness or irritation. Who knew minor symptoms like skin rash, headache, muscle and joint pain, fever and malaise could be associated with Zika Virus? Now you know. Next time these signs show, seek medical attention.
Seeking medical attention in Africa where the virus has not yet been diagnosed among people so far, could be challenging. This is because there are limited resources and facilities to test for the virus. In Uganda for example, only UVRI has the mechanisms to test the virus.
This virus has no treatment or vaccine yet. Governments and non-governmental organizations have directed resources to the study of the virus that is said to have infected more than I million people already in the tropical regions of America.
Last week, US President Barack Obama called for rapid research into the Zika virus and development of tests, vaccines and treatment.
"The president emphasized the need to accelerate research efforts to make available better diagnostic tests, to develop vaccines and therapeutics, and to ensure that all Americans have information about the Zika virus and steps they can take to better protect themselves from infection," a statement from the White House said.
The increasing human-wild animals contact, exploration of tropical rainforests, immigration and change of climate are some of the reasons why the world has witnessed an increase of viral diseases which were mostly found in wild animals in the tropical regions.
Meanwhile, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned pregnant women to avoid travelling to countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean where the virus is highly pronounced. Some governments like El Salvador, Columbia and Brazil are urging women to delay plans of pregnancy.
In Africa, Uganda is keeping an eye on the type of mosquitos that is linked to spreading the virus. Many regional countries will set aside resources as well to look into the issue lest they are caught up unprepared.
All that can be done now is look into the preventive measures as scientists embark on carrying out more research into the virus.