HealthDay News — Ebola-infected bats may have started the West African Ebola epidemic, research published in EMBO Molecular Medicine suggests.

Ebola epidemics are zoonotic in origin, spreading to humans through contact with bats or larger wildlife, according to Almudena Marí Saéz, PhD, of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, and colleagues. Larger wildlife, however, had been ruled out as a source of the 2014 outbreak, which began in the Guinean village of Meliandou.

Over a four-week field mission in Guinea last April, the investigators examined human exposure to bats and surveyed local wildlife and collected sample bats in Meliandou and nearby forests. After interviewing local residents, it was found that direct contact with fruit bats through hunting and eating meat is common in the affected regions of Africa. Despite this, the scientists determined that fruit bats are not likely the source of the outbreak.

The first patient infected with Ebola was a boy, aged two years. Food-related transmission would have affected adults before or at the same time as the boy, explained the study authors. However, a large colony of free-tailed insectivorous bats lived in a hollow tree near the toddler’s home.

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Villagers reported that children played in and around the tree, which could have led to significant exposure to bats. This type of bat in particular — the free-tailed insectivorous bat — may be a plausible source of transmission, determined the researchers.

“Health education initiatives should inform the public about potential disease risks posed by bats, recommend minimizing contact with bats, and advice against the consumption of bats,” said Fabian Leendertz, DVM, PhD, in a press release.


  1. Saez AM et al. EMBO Molecular Medicine. 2014; doi: 10.15252/emmm.201404792