Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) wishes to inform tourists and other categories of visitors to Ugandan National Parks and the general public that the bat/python caves in Maramagambo forest have been visited by both foreign and local tourists including school groups for the last 10 years (since 1998) and no incidences of infection to visitors or UWA staff who take visitors to the caves have been reported since then.
The case reported in the press is the first of its kind and is, therefore, isolated. We still hold our reservations until a team of experts confirms that the said tourist contracted the Marburg disease from the bats in the Maramagambo caves.
UWA takes the health, safety and welfare of both visitors to our national parks and our staff, including the communities surrounding the national parks, very seriously. In that regard, UWA has a very strong veterinary unit with a well-qualified staff based at both headquarters and in the field including Queen Elizabeth National Park.
The UWA veterinary team undertakes periodic wildlife disease surveillance and purposive disease search to ensure the health of wild animals and humans (tourists, visitors, staff, local communities) especially in cases of zoonoses (diseases shared between humans and animals such as ebola, marburg, bird flu, anthrax, brucellosis, tuberculosis and others). The periodic wildlife disease surveillance is undertaken together or in consultation with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, Makerere University, Uganda Virus Research Institute and other stakeholders in disease surveillance and diagnostics. UWA is an active member of the National Taskforce on Ebola, Marburg, Anthrax, Bird Flu. UWA is also a member of the Regional Taskforce and Technical Committee at the East African Community Secretariat on Transboundary Human and Animal Diseases which also include among others the above-mentioned diseases.
To date, there is no known natural reservoirs for both Marburg and Ebola diseases. Though the on-going ecological studies in the Kitaka mines, Kamwenge district indicate 23 out of 400 bats sampled (5%) were found to have evidence of previous exposure to Marburg virus, it should be noted that there are millions of bats in Uganda and their range at night when they go to feed is wide. This implies that there is a lot of interaction between bats and humans indirectly and occasionally directly and, therefore, if they were Marburg carriers, we would have seen an epidemic in Uganda, but this does not stop on-going investigations.
In the case concerning the bat cave in Maramagambo Forest, UWA has already contacted the National Task Force to help investigate the matter urgently. They are in agreement with the director general of Health, Dr. Zaramba, in warning the general public to avoid contact with wildlife including bats and primates as indeed is proscribed by UWA guidelines and bylaws.
UWA has, therefore, temporarily stopped visits to the caves in Maramagambo forest to allow for a proper investigation in the matter and has requested the National Taskforce on Marburg and Ebola, Ministry of Health and other stakeholders to cross-check with UWA staff who were with the tourist and other people who have recently visited the cave, although no death or illness has been reported to date.
All tourism activities and visitor facilities in Queen Elizabeth National Park remain open and safe to tourists and other visitors to the park save for visits to the bat caves.
They further urge the general public and the international community to stay calm while UWA in conjunction with a team of technical experts drawn from among other Ministries, Institutions and stakeholders continue to work tirelessly to manage the situation and keep the public duly informed.
It should also be noted that based on earlier sound scientific research and recommendations, UWA has put in place and is implementing guidelines specifying among others the minimum distance one can get to wildlife including reptiles, birds and mammals (inclusive of gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys and bats) so as to avoid contact and other safety and protective measures like clothing.
UWA has also been part of the recent symposium on the launch of Global Infectious Diseases, Bio-security and Agro-security at the Sheraton Hotel, Kampala that attracted a number of Ministries, Teaching and Research Institutions both in Uganda and the USA with emphasis on a one-health approach involving human, livestock and wildlife diseases and the environment with which they interact. These, among others, are efforts UWA undertakes aimed at ensuring biodiversity conservation in Uganda is in conformity with modern scientific and research findings.