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Ugandan Scientists at Front Lines of Zika Research

  • Jill Craig

Louis Mukwaya, mosquito researcher at the Uganda Virus Research Institute near Entebbe, reads at his desk about his primary subject of study. (J. Craig/VOA)

Louis Mukwaya, mosquito researcher at the Uganda Virus Research Institute near Entebbe, reads at his desk about his primary subject of study. (J. Craig/VOA)

Zika forest is a quiet place, where leaves flutter in the breeze and monkeys play in the trees. From the outside, it doesn’t appear remarkable.

It takes only a short walk into the woods, however, to find the imposing 37-meter tower that scientists at the Uganda Virus Research Institute were using to research yellow fever in 1947, when they isolated an unknown virus in the blood of a rhesus monkey.

The Zika virus, named after the forest in which it was discovered, remained relatively unknown for years. But, recent fear of the disease has gripped the world, and particularly Latin America, as Brazil deals with an outbreak while preparing to host the Summer Olympics.

Julius Lutwama, senior principal research officer at the virus institute, says the extensive work he and his colleagues have done set the foundation for current understanding and research on Zika.

"It was isolated here," Lutwama said, noting the significance of the institute's role in Zika's discovery. "The good thing is that it was known before, and it wasn’t really starting from scratch when this outbreak started."

Scientists were using this tower in Uganda's Zika Forest to study yellow fever when they isolated the Zika virus in rhesus monkey blood in 1947. (J. Craig/VOA)

Scientists were using this tower in Uganda's Zika Forest to study yellow fever when they isolated the Zika virus in rhesus monkey blood in 1947. (J. Craig/VOA)

Studying mosquito-borne illness

Research at the institute has continued well beyond the Zika virus.

Scientists here have discovered 27 viruses and 224 species of mosquitoes. They’ve worked on roughly 80 viruses, including Ebola and West Nile, once obscure illnesses that have become global threats because of air travel and urbanization.

Louis Mukwaya, a mosquito researcher at the institute, said there is more work to be done – and more cause for worry – well beyond the facility’s confines.

"You know, viruses, diseases, don’t observe boundaries," he said. They can move easily "from Sudan or Zambia or Uganda. They may be here today, but [in] a few years to come, you may find them in the United States, Europe. So we should all be concerned."

Rising concerns

The symptoms of Zika virus are usually mild, so people have not been that concerned – until now, amid reports that Zika could be sexually transmitted and have mutated to cause the birth defect microcephaly in newborns. Zika also is suspected of a link to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis.

In Uganda, researchers say that with proper funding, they would be happy to look into further study.

Louis Mukwaya, a mosquito researcher at the Uganda Virus Research Institute near Entebbe, displays a photograph of a Scottish medical entomologist. Alexander Haddow led the research team responsible for isolating the Zika virus in 1947. (J. Craig/VOA)

Louis Mukwaya, a mosquito researcher at the Uganda Virus Research Institute near Entebbe, displays a photograph of a Scottish medical entomologist. Alexander Haddow led the research team responsible for isolating the Zika virus in 1947. (J. Craig/VOA)

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