Ebola outbreak traced back to toddler and fruit bat

A close-up look at the Ebola virus. (Photo: ABC News)

BETHESDA, Md. (WJLA) - The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced Friday that the deadly 2014 outbreak of Ebola across the world can now be traced back to a single animal that infected a single human.

The NIH said in a press release that a scientist funded by the NIH made the discovery recently, and also said the scientist has made a breakthrough in how the disease has been transmitting from human to human in the current outbreak.

Pardis Sabeti, M.D., Ph.D, a 2009 National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator awardee, and her team carried out the groundbreaking research.

Sabeti and her team used advanced genomic sequencing technology to identify a single point of infection from an animal to a human in the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The team's research also revealed the dynamics of how the virus has been transmitted from human to human, and traces how the genetic code of the virus is changing over time to adapt to human hosts.

Using this technology, the researchers pinpointed a single late-2013 infection of a human by an animal. The New Zealand Herald interviewed scientists who believe that contact may have been between a toddler and a straw-colored fruit bat.

From there, NIH officials said the virus spread exclusively from that toddler to other humans.

"Their study showed that the strain responsible for the West African outbreak separated from a closely related strain found in Central Africa as early as 2004, indicating movement from Central to West Africa over the span of a decade," the NIH explained in a press release.

By studying how the virus has mutated as the outbreak has grown, and how it has adapted to human's varying immune systems, NIH officials said this data will hopefully allow scientists to develop improved methods to detect infection, and point the way to new and improved drug and vaccines.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak is now the largest outbreak in history, with current estimates of 2,473 infections and 1,350 deaths since it began in late December 2013, according to the World Health Organization.

This outbreak is also the first in West Africa and the first to affect urban areas, according to the NIH.

On Friday, the Ministry of Health reported Senegal's first Ebola patient. The infected person, a male university student from Guinea, sought treatment at a hospital in Senegal's capital, Dakar, on Tuesday, bringing the disease to that country for the first time.

There are no approved drugs for Ebola virus disease, though prompt diagnosis and aggressive supportive care can improve survival. { }