By Sarah Ferris
The Ebola virus that has ravaged West Africa for a year likely originated from an infected fruit bat that came into contact with a 2-year-old boy in Guinea now known as patient zero, according to new research.
The study, which was published Tuesday by the Berlin-based Robert Koch Institute, dispels a widely held idea that the infection was spread by eating bush meat.
The toddler, who became the first person to die in the current Ebola outbreak, may have come into contact with the bat while playing near a hollow tree near his home in the rainforest village of Meliandou.
While interviews with Meliandou locals revealed that it is not uncommon to eat the bats, the researchers don’t believe they can blame bush meat for spreading the disease because no other adults became sick.
“This suggests a source of infection unrelated to food,” according to a release from the European scientific journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.
A fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against eating bush meat because "Ebola infections in people have been associated with handling and eating infected animals." And in a Q&A about the source of Ebola, the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders writes that patient zero’s family “admitted to having hunted two species of bat.”
The researchers, who spent a month in the village, also note that fruit bats are “commonly suspected” to have carried the virus in previous outbreaks of the disease in Africa.
The World Health Organization said that Ebola has also been spread through the handling of infected animals such as monkeys, antelope and porcupines.
This year’s outbreak has been the worst ever recorded, with a death toll nearing 8,000, according to the World Health Organization.
Researchers from the New England Journal of Medicine reported in October that the 2-year-old boy, Emile Ouamouno, was the first person to contract the disease. He died Dec. 6, after infecting his sister, mother and grandmother.