December 26, 1994 - North Dakota University: Kenya RPCV Chuck Wood asks: Deadly Virus in Uganda Volcano?

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kenya: Peace Corps Kenya : The Peace Corps in Kenya: December 26, 1994 - North Dakota University: Kenya RPCV Chuck Wood asks: Deadly Virus in Uganda Volcano?

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Kenya RPCV Chuck Wood asks: Deadly Virus in Uganda Volcano?

Kenya RPCV Chuck Wood asks: Deadly Virus in Uganda Volcano?

Deadly Virus in Uganda Volcano?

A virus is a microscopic organism that is good at one thing: making copies of itself. Viruses are so tiny that millions of them can fit on the period at the end of this sentence. Viruses are everywhere -- in the air, on food, inside our bodies, everywhere. Most viruses don't cause trouble, but others make us sick. Sometimes when we have the flu and a doctor gives us antibiotic medicine, it doesn't work. That means the flu is caused by a virus. Anti-biotics will cure a flu caused by bacteria.

Some viruses are very dangerous. Perhaps the most harmful is a virus called ebola which makes copies of itself so quickly that it destroys the cells inside a body and the animal or person dies within a few days. Ebola is very rare, but two people who were attacked by it had both visited a volcano just before they got sick. Both people visited a cave in Mount Elgon volcano on the border of Uganda and Kenya. Mount Elgon is an old volcano that probably last erupted 6 or 7 million years ago. Since then it has been slowly eroding away due to the effects of rain and wind and gravity.

I am interested in this because I have been to Mount Elgon. Twenty-seven years ago I was a Peace Corps volunteer living in Kenya. On a few really clear days I caught a glimpse of Mount Elgon to the north. Some students, other teachers and I organized an expedition to visit the volcano. We wanted to see it because it is 14,178 ft high. The top of the mountain is 9,000 to 10,000 feet higher than the dry plains that surround it. Thus there is much more rain on Elgon so that it has different animal and plants living on it. In the U.S., Mount Elgon would be a national park, and part of it is on the Kenya side.

The mountain has scattered forests, sawmills and farms around its base. At about 8300 ft elevation, bamboo mixes with trees to make a thick rain forest that used to be home for many elephants, buffalo and other game animals. Unfortunately, most of the elephants have been killed recently by poachers who cut off the tusks to sell to ivory carvers. Above about 10,000 ft, the forest gives way to open moor land, and a four-mile wide caldera or volcanic depression is at the volcano's summit.

Mount Elgon has a remarkable cave high up on its eastern flanks. Kitum Cave is huge, and it is cut into soft volcanic ash and other rocks. Elephants, buffalo, monkeys and other animals go to Kitum Cave to lick salt from the walls. Salt is necessary for animal diets, and Kitum is one of the few places on Mount Elgon to find it. It has even been suggested that the cave has been excavated over hundreds of thousands of years by elephants using their tusks to dig for salt!

Have you forgotten the virus? Well, here is where it comes back into the story. The two people who were quickly killed by the ebola virus had both visited Kitum Cave. In 1988, American and Kenyan scientists made an expedition to search for viruses in the cave. They found none. Had the virus been there and departed? Or was it only a coincidence that both victims had been there before dying? This is an unsolved mystery.

If you want to read a terrifying but true story about the ebola virus and the search to understand it, get the book The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. This book is for high school students and adults. I got some of the information reported here from that book. I also got some information about the volcano from an old (1952) technical report, The Building of Mount Elgon, by K.A. Davies (Geologic Survey of Uganda, Memoir # 7).

Chuck Wood VolcanoWorld Univ. of North Dakota

Dec. 26, 1994

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Story Source: North Dakota University

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kenya; COS - Uganda



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