The Innocent Game That Started the Ebola Outbreak

A new study suggests the source could have come from something as harmless as children playing near a hollow tree.

Children playing in Liberia. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 30, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Celeste Hoang is the Film & TV Integration Editor for TakePart.

Back in October, researchers identified Ebola’s likely patient zero as a two-year-old boy living in the village of Meliandou, Guinea. Now the authors of a new report, published today in Embo Molecular Medicine, believe they know how he got infected: by playing near a hollow tree that housed a colony of insect-eating bats.

Ebola has dominated headlines for months now, and this outbreak is the largest ever recorded, killing at least 7,800 people across Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Senegal as of Dec. 17. The fact that it could have been caused by something so innocent makes it even more heartbreaking and frightening.

The study, led by researchers from the Robert Koch-Institute in Berlin, Germany, details how scientists traveled to the boy’s village on a four-week field mission this past April and hunted for clues as to how he could have come into contact with the virus. At first they found no evidence of Ebola in larger wildlife, so they and zeroed in on fruit bats, which are commonly suspected of housing the virus because they’re frequently hunted and eaten as bush meat.

However, the food-borne transmission theory didn’t make sense either—it seemed unlikely that a young child would become ill before, or not alongside, any of the adults in the community, as his food sources probably came from his parents or caretakers. And, the authors noted, no large colony of fruit bats existed in or near the village of Meliandou.

After speaking with several locals, the researchers learned a devastating detail: the children from the village often played near a hollow tree that was home to a large colony of free-tailed insectivorous bats—which may have resulted in a “massive exposure,” according to the study’s press release.

Still, researchers need more time before they can truly prove the virus' source. The authors sum up their results by acknowledging that these analyses “expand the range of possible Ebola virus sources,” but they need to broaden their sampling efforts.

The report’s publication comes on the heels of a health worker in Scotland just confirmed today to have Ebola after returning from a trip to Sierra Leone with Save the Children. She is currently being treated at a hospital in North London.