When news reports surfaced late last year, that the Aedes Aegypti mosquito (responsible for diseases such as dengue and chikungunya) was sweeping across Brazil,  the national government sent out 200,000 soldiers to try and contain the Zika virus.

But few had ever heard of Zika, despite the fact that it arrived in South America more than a half-century ago, probably on cargo ships crossing between West Africa and Brazil.

Even though the word Zika has been all over the headlines recently, few identify its namesake – the 1.5 kilometer-long Zika Forest, which runs adjacent to Lake Victoria in Uganda.

The Zika Forest is where the virus got its name. (Photo by David Ascanio)
The Zika Forest is where the virus got its name. (Photo by David Ascanio)

In this tropical enclave – known as “overgrown” in the Luganda language – scientists in 1947 identified a rhesus monkey (Rhesus 766) running a fever of 39.7°C, two degrees above normal.

After a year of laboratory experiments on mice with blood samples from primate No.766, these same researchers identified a mosquito in the canopy of the Zika as the responsible agent for a potentially paralyzing and transmissible sickness.

Work conducted by the Uganda Virus Research Institute in Entebbe, located on the fringes of the Zika Forest, resulted in the first major documentation of the virus, which has caught the world off-guard and has our leaders scrambling to try and contain its dangerous symptoms. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned his citizens of the “filth spreading from South America.”

To help the Uganda Virus Research Institute’s work with Zika, Scottish virologist and physician George Dick (1914-1997) of the National Institute for Medical Research in London and two former members of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City, Stuart Kitchen and Alec Haddow (1912-1978) traveled to Entebbe.

In September 1952, they published their findings in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. According to an article in Science Magazine, the papers revealed that “The absence of the recognition of a disease in humans caused by Zika virus does not necessarily mean that the disease is either rare or unimportant.”

Zika would then disappear from the virological radar for more than a half century. But in 2007, cases began to appear on Yap Island in the Federated Republic of Micronesia. The strange disease resembled mild cases of dengue but was distinct, as it generated a rash in the infected.

Two years later, this sudden outbreak in Oceania caught the attention of The New England Journal of Medicine. The article, which catapulted Zika back into the limelight, stated: “Physicians on Yap Island reported an outbreak of illness characterized by rash, conjunctivitis, and arthralgia. Although serum from some patients had IgM antibody against dengue virus, the illness seemed clinically distinct from previously detected dengue. Subsequent testing with the use of consensus primers detected Zika virus RNA in the serum of the patients but no dengue virus or other arboviral RNA. No previous outbreaks and only 14 cases of Zika virus disease have been previously documented.”

Another outbreak hit French Polynesia in January 2013, with an estimated 6,630 suspected cases and 333 biologically confirmed ones. For the first time, the disease was associated with a serious neurological disorder, Guillain-Barré.

Of those infected with Zika and who showed signs of neurological illness, 67 percent were men aged between 27 and 70. Ten of the most serious cases required hospitalization and artificial respiration.

Now it’s South America’s turn.

In May 2015, the first transmission of Zika was reported in South America and documented by the Brazilian medical journal, Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz.

The report stated: “patients presenting symptoms of mild fever, rash, conjunctivitis and arthralgia were reported in the northeastern Brazil. Although all patients lived in a dengue endemic area, molecular and serological diagnosis for dengue resulted negative. Chikungunya virus infection was also discarded.”

The virus moved west towards Venezuela and Colombia. By January 2016, it was crossing international boundaries undetected, and thousands of people were getting sick.

Rashes and debilitating joint and muscular pain were documented in health centers across South America and Central America. The public health emergency promoted the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan, to announce that Zika virus was spreading “explosively” and with “high intensity.”

Then came the tragedy of Brazilian babies born with underdeveloped heads, the result of microcephaly in Zika virus-linked pregnancies. Brazilian health authorities have reported 4,700 cases of newborns with abnormal brain development thus far.

Governments across Latin America are responding to the epidemic urging women to postpone pregnancy, yet given the alarming surge in microcephaply cases, some have gone so far as to encourage a liberalization of abortion laws.

The Pan American Health Organization believes 26 countries and territories in the Americas are now subject to the disease, with three to four million infected this year by the virus.

As one-in-five people infected become symptomatic, it’s a challenge to track the spread of Zika. No specific antiviral treatment for disease is available and scientists have stated it could take several years to develop and test a vaccine.

On Monday February 8, U.S President Barack Obama pushed Congress to include U.S $200 million for the development and commercialization of a Zika vaccine. But there doesn’t appear to be a rush to win the war on Zika in the short-term.

“The good news is this is not like Ebola; people don’t die of Zika. A lot of people get it and don’t even know that they have it,” Obama was quoted this week during an interview on CBS News.

Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been quick on the alerts and announced February that its emergency operations center is now on a “Level 1” status – its highest level of activation.

All eyes are on the 2016 Brazil Olympic Games in August. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued an advisory note on the spread of Zika in Brazil six months ahead of the much-anticipated event. The United States Olympic Committee is wary of putting its athletes at risk and has warned U.S. sports federations that should the Zika threat persist, maybe Rio 2016, should be a no show. Another front on the world war on Zika approaches.