The Ebola outbreak could have started with a kid playing in bat-occupied tree

The Ebola victim who is thought to have been patient zero in the current outbreak was a two-year-old boy named Emile Ouamouno from Guinea. Scientists now think he could have been infected while playing in a hollow tree where bats lived, according to BBC. The scientists visited Ouamouno’s village, Meliandou, and took samples in addition to […]

The Ebola victim who is thought to have been patient zero in the current outbreak was a two-year-old boy named Emile Ouamouno from Guinea. Scientists now think he could have been infected while playing in a hollow tree where bats lived, according to BBC.

The scientists visited Ouamouno’s village, Meliandou, and took samples in addition to talking to people who lived there. They published their findings in EMBO Molecular Medicine. Unfortunately, however, the evidence was burned when someone set fire to the tree just before the researchers arrived, so it is going to be very challenging to confirm their hypothesis.

Ebola is a virus that can be spread between humans and other animals, a zoonotic disease, so scientists knew they had to keep the scope open in looking for a source. But a big suspect in this outbreak case was the fruit bat because they are a food source in Africa. Scientists have found genetic material from Ebola virus in several fruit bat species.

According to locals, when it [the tree] was burning, there was a “rain of bats,” — small bats with a long tail that the locals refer to as lolibelo. When the researchers examined the ash around the tree, they found DNA from a species that matches the locals’ description- the insectivorous, free-tailed bat M. condylurus. Apparently there may have been thousands of bats in there, and the village children used to barbeque them, so it’s possible the child may have caught or eaten an infected bat here.

None of the bats that were sampled, however, were infected with the virus. But researchers have previously found antibodies to the virus in the same species.

Although the idea is plausible, it can’t be proven at the moment, which is why the scientists are continuing to sample bats and other wildlife in the region in the hope that more definitive evidence can be gathered.

[Feature photo from flickr user Aidan Jones]