An advertisement for donations to fight Ebola in Africa is displayed on a bus stop near the apartment building
An advertisement for donations to fight Ebola in Africa is displayed on a bus stop near the apartment building of the nurse who contracted Ebola, in Alcorcon, outside Madrid, October 8, 2014. Reuters

The outbreak of the Ebola virus might have come from a two-year-old boy who played in a hollow tree housing a colony of bats in Guinea. Scientists believe that the boy, named Emile Ouamouno, triggered the current outbreak of the disease.

In a paper published for the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine, scientists have deduced that the current outbreak of the fatal disease, caused by the Zaire Ebola virus or EBOV, was triggered by a young boy who got Ebola from a hollowed tree in their community. The tree was home to a colony of insectivorous free-tailed bats.

Ouamouno, who died in December 2013, was from the small village of Meliandou within the Guinean region. The fruit bats in the tree are suspected of carrying EBOV and were hunted for their meat in the region. The villagers disposed of the meat immediately after the government announced the ban on bushmeat consumption. But while bushmeat is suspected of being a source of Ebola, the scientists did not believe it was what caused the outbreak.

If consumption of fruit bats was the source of infection, the food item-borne transmission of the virus would have likely affected adults first. Instead it was Ouamouno who had contracted the disease. Also, there were no hunters in the boy’s household. Hence, it was more plausible that the source of infection was unrelated to food items consumed in the home. During the beginning of the current epidemic, only children and women presented symptoms or died of the disease.

After Ouamouno died, his four-year-old sister Philomene and their mother also passed away from the disease. Their father survived.

The boy, along with the other children in the village, regularly caught and played with bats in the hollowed tree, which had been burnt on March 24, 2014. According to the villagers, when the tree caught fire, a “rain of bats” started, and the villagers collected bats for consumption.

As the researchers found the tree already burnt down when they led a four-week field mission in April, they do not know for certain if the bats that lived in the tree transmitted Ebola to the boy. They tested living bats around Meliandou instead, but they did not detect Ebola in any of the bats. Previous tests show, however, that this species of bat can carry Ebola. The study, according to the report, was enough evidence to include insectivorous bats in Ebola outbreak analyses.