By Halima Athumani
A top scientist at the Uganda-based facility that first identified the Zika virus has told Anadolu Agency that the bug is multiplying and becoming more adaptable to humans.
Dr. Julius Lutwama, senior principal research officer at the Uganda Virus Research Institute, said the virus outbreak in the Americas can only be reduced by supportive treatment and through controlling disease-carrying mosquitoes.
“There are two strains of the Zika virus, which include the African Zika virus and the Asian strain, which are slightly different,” he said.
“The strain that is causing problems in the Americas comes from Asia, went to Micronesia, Polynesia and moved to South America.”
Zika is a mosquito-borne viral infection that, although rarely fatal, has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that affects brain development in fetuses. There is no vaccine or treatment.
First identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania, Brazil reported the first of the latest cases in May last year and the disease has since spread to 22 other countries and territories in the region, infecting thousands.
The World Health Organization is to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to determine if the outbreak constitutes an international public health emergency.
Lutwama - who works at the institute in the Zika Forest, near Entebbe - said the virus’ genome had changed slightly and “become more adaptable to humans, so it’s multiplying at a very high rate.”
Risk to mothers, babies
Emphasizing the risk to pregnant women and unborn children, he added: “Babies in the womb grow at a very fast rate and when a virus crosses into the womb then it grows as fast as the child grows.
“This means there is a lot of virus being produced in the quickly growing cells [so] it affects the child.”
The WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working around the clock to find a vaccine.
Lutwama said no vaccine has so far been developed, despite the disease being identified more than 60 years ago, because infections were mild and there were few cases.
He said the difficulty in eradicating the virus was that “they only become alive when they get into cells, so the moment you say you want to kill the virus it means you have to kill the cells - which means you have to kill the person.”
Between 1947, when the virus was identified in monkeys, and 2007, only 14 cases of the virus were recorded around the world, including two in Uganda. In 2013, 200 cases were recorded globally.
Lutwama’s research center focuses on viral infections and has identified infections including the Bundibugyo virus, a strain of the Ebola virus, in 2007.
Lutwama, an experienced arbovirologist who has been studying viruses passed by insects and ticks for more than 30 years, said Uganda’s most recent recorded Zika virus case was in 2012.
“We had dismissed her case for a while until we collected a blood sample that revealed she had four antibodies to four different infections but there were no confirmatory tests,” Lutwama said.
“In Dakar [Senegal, where samples were forwarded] two more viruses were identified, including the Zika virus.”
Uganda is home to up to 77 viruses transmitted by insects, with 34 of these commonly found elsewhere around the world.
Research has found the viruses thrive in tropical climates amid the right flora and fauna.