for National Geographic News
Bats eaten by people in central Africa may host the deadly Ebola virus, according to new research.
The wild reservoir of the killer virus has long been a mystery, despite a number of deadly outbreaks in humans and great apes.
Researchers have now found evidence of Ebola infection in three species of fruit bats. The bats show no symptoms of the disease, indicating that they might be spreading it.
"Fruit bats are likely the reservoirs [of Ebola]," said Eric Leroy of the Centre International de Recherches Médicales de Franceville in Gabon, who led the research. "But we can not exclude definitively that other species may harbor the Ebola virus [too]."
Understanding where the disease hides between outbreaks and how it is spread should help protect both humans and great apes from the virus.
The findings appear tomorrow in the science journal Nature.
The Ebola virus was named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the site of a 1976 outbreak.
The pathogen kills anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of its human victims through massive internal bleeding. A simple handshake can transmit the disease, which has no known cure.
In the past five years, Ebola outbreaks in Gabon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have killed 263 people in total. The outbreaks also devastated local gorilla and chimpanzee populations.
No one knows how the disease entered the first human or ape, but scientists have long suspected that bats may be spreading the virus. Earlier experiments have shown that bats survive after being injected with the Ebola virus.
In the new study, researchers went on three trapping expeditions between 2001 and 2003 in Gabon and the Republic of Congo in areas close to infected gorilla and chimpanzee carcasses.
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