The largest ever Ebola outbreak has been ravaging communities in western Africa, and recent reports indicate the spread of the virus has shown few signs of slowing down. Although the current outbreak was active for much of 2014, becoming an international concern and causing more than 7,000 deaths in Guinea, Sierra Leonne and Liberia alone, the origin of this particular outbreak has remained unknown. Reports indicate the current outbreak started with the death of a 2-year-old boy — Emile Ouamouno — from a village in Guinea.
A study has now linked the boy's contraction of the virus to playing with bats in a hollow tree. The results of the study — which were carried out by an international team of scientific researchers during a four-week trip in April 2014 — were recently published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine. The report concludes that many of the children in Guinea's 31-house village of Meliandou, including Ouamouno, regularly played with and hunt bats that live inside a hollowed-out tree stump. Bats are believed to carry the Ebola virus, and scientists claim Oumaouno's contact with the animals may have been the "zoonotic orgin" of the epidemic. The researchers found no trace of Ebola in the live bats they captured in the village.
Villagers reported that the tree caught fire on March 24, 2014, soon before the outbreak began, and resulted in a "rain of bats." The bats were collected for meat by the villagers but subsequently tossed out after the Guinea government issued a ban on eating bushmeat. It is not believed that eating bat meat was the cause of the outbreak, but Oumaouno's exposure to the animals and their droppings.
According to the Independent, Dr. Fabian Leendertz from Germany's Robert Koch Institute warned that culling the population of bats in the region would have an adverse affect on the area's ecosystem without solving the epidemic. "We need to find ways to live together with the wildlife. These bats catch insects and pests, such as mosquitoes. They can eat about a quarter of their body weight in insects a day. Killing them would not be a solution. You would have more malaria," Leendertz told the BBC. Still, tracing the origin helps us better understand how the virus has spread, and how it can potentially be stopped.