The Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa could have originated from contact between humans and infected bats, according to a study.
The research, by the Robert Koch-Institute in Berlin and published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine, identifies insectivorous free-tailed bats as possible Ebola virus sources.
The results of the study also show that larger wildlife are not the source of infection.
Ebola virus disease epidemics are zoonotic in origin. This means the virus is transmitted to humans either through contact with larger wildlife or by direct contact with bats.
“We monitored the large mammal populations close to the index village Meliandou (where the epidemic started) in south-eastern Guinea and found no evidence for a concurrent outbreak,” says Fabian H. Leendertz of the Robert Koch Institute, who led the study.
The second infection route appears more plausible as direct contact with bats is usual in the region.
Interviews with Meliandou locals showed exposure to fruit bats through hunting and consumption of meat.
Yet fruit bats seem an unlikely source of infection because food-borne transmission would have affected adults before or at the same time as the first case of Ebola, a two-year-old boy. This suggests a source of infection unrelated to food.
Another opportunity for infection was a large colony of free-tailed insectivorous bats housed in a hollow tree nearby the boy’s home. Villagers say children often used to play in and around the tree.
The virus which spread from Meliandou into other areas of Guinea and Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal, is the largest recorded Ebola outbreak, so far killing 7,588 people.
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