SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS)— A young boy playing in a hollowed-out tree seems innocuous enough, but was also what started one of the biggest global news stories of 2014. Health officials now believe that the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa began with that young boy as patient zero— the first human to contract the disease.
Researchers have determined that his exposure to the bats and their droppings likely triggered the current outbreak, which has killed thousands.
Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University, specializes in infectious diseases, said part of what made the story extraordinary is that investigators went to that rural community and determined what the child's behavior had been. There had been suspicion that bats were involved because, according to Schaffner, bats had been previous reservoirs for Ebola in the Congo in prior outbreaks.
"Villagers had taken them to that tree, which actually had burned," he said. They were able to collect remnants of the tree and other materials, take them to a laboratory and make the diagnosis using modern scientific techniques. "It's an extraordinary detective story."
Only one patient started this most recent outbreak. Schaffner said there have not been repeated introductions from wild animals. "One started it and we'd like to know how exactly that happened, obviously in an attempt to try to prevent this from ever happening again."
The more we learn from this outbreak, Schaffner said the better equipped we'll be able to handle any future instances from a public health standpoint.
Bats are consumed in the area and are considered cuisine in low-income areas of West Africa. They're eaten in soup and children have been known to collect and grill them.
"These are larger bats usually than the ones we're accustomed to so there's, if you will, more meat on the bone. Children actually play with some of these bats. They're not thought to be harmful to the children and then release them alive again. These are extraordinary practices and they'll be very difficult to interrupt. If they are an important source of food, it's very hard to replace protein sources in the developing world," he said.
Public outreach and education is in demand to inform people of the risk and has helped in the past. For example the villagers burned that tree where the bats had their roost.
"In order to sustain that, we're going to have to work hard. This is a long-term process to enhance the socio-economic status of the people in these countries so that they can have farms and raise animals, chickens, cows, etc. for their protein without having to go into the wild for their bush meat."
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