By Gatonye Gathura
The World Health Organization has cautioned visitors to the Mt Elgon National Park over the possible risk of Marburg virus disease.
In a statement WHO says, the park which straddles into Uganda has popular caves which host large colonies of cave-dwelling fruit bats, known to transmit the Marburg virus.
The caves and their nearness to the affected area in Uganda, WHO says increases the risk of cross border virus spread between human and bat populations in the two countries.
“Tourism to Mount Elgon including the caves and surrounding areas should be noted and appropriate advice given and precautions taken,” said a WHO statement issued last week.
Who has advised travelers to the Mount Elgon bat caves, to avoid exposure to fruit bats and contact with non-human primates.
As much as practically possible such visitors are advised to wear gloves and protecting clothing, including masks.
The caution comes at a time WHO, other international agencies, and the Kenya and Uganda governments have mobilized to contain a Marburg outbreak in Uganda that threatens to cross over to Kenya.
So far no Marburg case has been found in Kenya with two confirmed and one suspected patient having died in Uganda by last week.
One of the confirmed patients had travelled to Kenya prior to his death, but so far no human-to-human transmission has been confirmed outside of Uganda.
Currently WHO says several teams have been deployed to conduct risk assessments and initiate contact tracing and surveillance in Trans Nzoia and West Pokot counties.
Mt Elgon National Park in Bungoma and Trans Nzoia counties and straddling into Uganda has been suspected of hosting the Marburg virus since the death of two foreigners who visited the Elgon caves, one in 1980 and the other in 1987.
The two, a 56-year-old Frenchman, according to the World Health Organization and the other, a 15-year-old Danish male, died in Nairobi Hospital of Marburg virus disease.
The only common thing about the two men, it was found, and which forms a central theme in the non-fiction scientific bestseller, The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, was that both had visited the Kitum caves in Mount Elgon National Park.
The Frenchman, while on treatment, infected his attending doctor who was treated by one of the Kenya’s top physicians, Dr David Silverstein, at Nairobi Hospital in January 1980. The physician survived.
Following the two cases reported in Kenya, scientists have been combing the Mt Elgon caves for the virus but are yet to find it, though the search continues.
Currently a team headed by Dr Bernard Agwanda of the National Museums of Kenya is mapping out all habitats of bats in the country and whether they host the Marburg virus.
In a four-year collaboration between Kenya and China, Dr Agwanda also a member of the Presidential advisory committee on Ebola, says they hope to map out possible Marburg and Ebola hotspots in Kenya.
Such a map for Uganda was published in September just days before the current Marburg outbreak and does not auger very well for Kenya.
The map by a team from Makerere University, which included Gladys Mosomtai of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology, Kenya, marks out 601 hotspots in Uganda for Marburg and related diseases.
The map includes areas such as Mbale, Busia and Tororo districts near the Mt. Elgon regions bordering with Kenya.
The study published in the journal Plos Currents advises that these newly detected hotspots be kept under surveillance for early outbreak, detection and response.
Such surveillance they advise should also cover Kenya’s Kitum caves of Mt Elgon and areas around Lake Victoria basin some with high human traffic between the two countries.
Mount Elgon National Park is located on the border of Kenya and Uganda, 140km northeast of Lake Victoria.
Mount Elgon is an important water catchment for the Nzoia River, which flows into Lake Victoria and for the Turkwel River, which flows into Lake Turkana. It is Kenya’s second highest mountain, with the Koitoboss peak rising to 4,155 meters.
The mountain’s caves, of which the most famous is Kitum, attract scores of visitors. Tourists come to marvel at the rock art etched on the cave walls.
The Mt Elgon caves are thought to have served as the original inspiration for H. Rider Haggard’s novel, King Solomon’s Mines or in Swahili ‘Mashimo ya Mfalme Sulemani.’
The Marburg virus disease was named after a German town of the same name where the first outbreak was reported in 1967 among laboratory workers who were said to have been handling monkeys imported from Uganda.
What Kenya is doing about Marburg disease
No case identified in Kenya
Outbreak contingency plan activated
2000 Personal Protective Equipment dispatched to Trans Nzoia County
Suspect blood specimens dispatched to Nairobi’s KEMRI
MSF-France set up treatment Kaisangat in Trans Nzoia
WHO advises against any travel or trade restrictions on Uganda
Travelers to the Mount Elgon bat caves advised to be cautious