The deadly Zika virus, which almost marred the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, has been detected in Kenya for the first time.
Between 2016 and 2017, some 215,319 Zika infections were reported in Brazil with 2,347 infants born with head deformities in a condition known as microcephaly.
On Friday, local researchers said they have detected 33 Zika incidents in West Pokot County and one in Turkana County, the first ever recorded in Kenya.
The team from the Ministry of Health, the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology want measures put in place to prevent a possible outbreak.
The researchers in the study published in Virology Journal on Friday on May 17, 2019, said they had found evidence Zika virus has been circulating undetected in human populations in West Pokot and Turkana counties.
The team led by Edith Chepkorir of Icipe was hunting for yellow fever, dengue, West Nile and Zika viruses in the two counties.
The areas were being investigated because they border Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia where recent outbreaks of yellow fever and dengue have been reported, with possibility of spillover into Kenya.
In the study, they found all the four viruses present with Zika being recorded for the first time in Kenya.
The team had collected 877 samples from the two counties with 33 turning positive for Zika in West Pokot and one in Turkana.
“The results in the current study suggest circulation of Zika in both counties, yet there have never been reported or confirmed cases of Zika in Kenya,” the report notes.
The virus was first identified in a rhesus monkey in 1947 in the Zika forest in Uganda. Coincidentally, the new study says the Kenya cases were detected in an area called Kanyerus, West Pokot, which is very close to where the virus was first recorded in Uganda.
The scientists says this time round they were only investigating the presence of the virus, but not whether it was causing disease among the local populations.
“The presence of Zika virus neutralising antibodies in this population especially in the 13–19 age group shows that the viruses have recently been circulating in this region,” says the report.
They now want more surveillance carried out to include young children and pregnant women, because Zika has been associated with congenital birth defects, in the developing foetus.
In West Pokot, the prevalence of Zika was highest among those in the age group 13–19 years and was twice as high in males compared to females.
The authors say the virus may have been circulating in the area for a long time unnoticed due to lack of detection facilities. “This calls for focused disease surveillance to forestall severe consequences of the virus in case of an outbreak,” suggests the study.
Zika virus is primarily transmitted to people through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, which can also transmit chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever.