Out of Africa

A once-obscure virus spreads its wings, sickening hundreds. How did this happen?

Jack Woodall
Sep 1, 2007

Nearly fifty years ago, I was living in Entebbe, then capital of Uganda, studying mosquito-borne viruses at the East African Virus Research Institute. One of those, a dengue-like virus, was named after the Zika forest, a little residual pocket of trees down the hill from the institute, where it was first isolated. I was coauthor on a 1964 paper describing 12 strains of Zika virus from mosquitoes collected there (Bull World Health Organ, 31:57-69, 1964), and we deduced that it cycled between mosquitoes and monkeys in the Zika treetops.

Since then I hadn't thought much about Zika. Its life has been largely sporadic, then silent - the medical literature has cataloged fewer than 40 cases in more than 50 years, and none from the last 25. The few cases we saw were in single outbreaks in Nigeria, Indonesia, and Malaysia. But all that has changed: The virus has...

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