Marburg virus has been found in fruit bats in Sierra Leone, marking the first appearance of the deadly, Ebola-like virus in West Africa, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting.
Five Egyptian rousette fruit bats found in three different districts tested positive for infection with Marburg virus, a cousin to Ebola that can cause a hemorrhagic fever with case fatality rates up to 90%, according to CDC.
While no confirmed cases of Marburg infection have been reported in Sierra Leone, the presence of virus in these bats indicates that people nearby may be at risk, according to scientists.
“We have known for a long time that rousette bats, which carry Marburg virus in other parts of Africa, also live in West Africa, so it’s not surprising that we’d find the virus in bats there,” CDC ecologist Jonathan S. Towner, PhD, said in a.
The Egyptian rousette bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus) is the natural reservoir for Marburg, shedding the virus in saliva, urine, and feces while feeding on fruit. People and are exposed to the virus when they eat contaminated fruit or capture bats for food, according to the CDC.
The most recent Marburg virus outbreak, which occurred in Uganda in 2017, was the 12th reported outbreak linked to Africa, according to the agency. The largest and deadliest outbreak occurred in 2005 in Angola, infecting 252 people, of whom 90% died.
Testing of the Marburg-positive bats revealed genetically diverse strains, suggesting the virus has been present in Sierra Leone bat colonies for many years, the agency said. Two of the four Marburg virus strains identified in the Sierra Leone bats were genetically similar to the strain implicated in the Angola outbreak.
Egyptian fruit bats are in fact common throughout Africa, living in caves or underground mines. Marburg-positive bats have been found in sub-Saharan Africa, according to researchers, mainly in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Colonies of Egyptian fruit bats can number more than 100,000 animals in eastern and central Africa, while in Sierra Leone, colonies are much smaller, which may explain the lack of Marburg virus disease outbreaks in that country, CDC said.
Discovery of Marburg virus in Sierra Leone was the result of two projects, one led by the CDC and Njala University in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the other by the University of California, Davis, and the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone, which was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
“This discovery is an excellent example of how our work can identify a threat and help us warn people of the risk before they get sick.” Dr. Towner said in the news release.
The two projects began in 2016 after the large Ebola outbreak in West Africa with the aim of identifying the reservoir of Ebola, according to CDC.