The World Health Organization has listed Uganda on its Zika travel advisory list, but now the country’s health minister is requesting removal from the list, citing no cases or outbreaks.
Zika virus gets its name from the Zika forest of Uganda, the country where the virus was first identified. Recently, however, Uganda’s Ministry of Health has disputed the country’s inclusion on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) health advisory list for Zika, insisting that the virus is not currently circulating in the region.
Following the discovery of Zika virus in rhesus monkeys in Uganda in 1947, the country went on to see the first reported human cases in 1952. In subsequent decades, the virus spread to parts of West Africa and Asia, and by 1983, had been detected in mosquitoes in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan. Prior to 2007—when the first large outbreak of Zika in humans affected an island in the Federated States of Micronesia—there had been only 14 documented human cases of the virus. Outbreaks in French Polynesia and other Pacific islands occurred before the large outbreak that began in 2015 in Brazil and other parts of Central and South America. Pregnant women have been advised to avoid traveling to countries with recent Zika outbreaks, due to the risk of microcephaly.
Uganda has no reported human cases or outbreaks of Zika virus, but the country was recently included in WHO travel guidelines warning pregnant women to avoid travel to Uganda. In addition, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the country as one of the dozens of African countries with risk of Zika, and the CDC’s health information for travel to Uganda notes that “Zika is a risk in Uganda. Zika infection during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects. Therefore, pregnant women should not travel to Uganda. Partners of pregnant women and couples planning pregnancy should know the possible risks to pregnancy and take preventive steps.” In recent news, in response to the country’s inclusion in Zika travel advisories, Uganda’s Ministry of Health is disputing that the virus is circulating there.
Uganda’s Health Minister, Jane Ruth Aceng, MBChB, MMed, MPH, is now asking WHO to explain how the agency determined the country has circulating Zika and is calling the information false. “That is very wrong information. Whereas it (Zika) was discovered in Uganda, we don’t have it and they know it very well,” said Dr. Aceng in a recent interview. “Even when it broke out in Brazil, we did not have it here.” Ugandan officials are concerned its inclusion in the WHO’s Zika travel advisory will jeopardize its tourism industry—particularly sparking concerns among anyone who is pregnant or trying to conceive—and is requesting to be removed from any Zika travel warnings.
WHO is currently advising pregnant women to avoid travel to Zika-affected countries with category 1 and 2 classifications. According to WHO, category 2 areas are those with evidence of Zika virus circulation before 2015 or with ongoing transmission, which may also experience an outbreak of Zika but do not meet criteria for category 1 or 3. Uganda has been classified as a category 2 country, along with Latin American countries which were affected by the 2015-2016 Zika outbreaks; the list includes Brazil, Bolivia, Columbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Jamaica, Venezuela, and several African countries.