Fears of another Ebola epidemic have been raised after a new strain of the killer virus has been discovered.
Officials warn the Bombali strain of the virus, found in bats in Sierra Leone, has the ‘potential’ to strike humans.
Health ministers in the African nation have now urged millions living in the country to avoid eating bats – a local delicacy.
The Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this week declared the end of a worrying Ebola outbreak, which killed 33 people.
But virologists feared it was ‘reminiscent’ of the 2014 pandemic, which decimated West Africa, including Sierra Leone, and claimed 11,000 lives.
Officials warn the Bombali strain of the virus – found in bats in Sierra Leone – has the ‘potential’ to strike humans (stock)
The country’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation yesterday confirmed the discovery of the never before seen strain of Ebola.
It was found in bats in the rural northern Bombali region, which borders Guinea and is home to around 600,000 people.
Amara Jambai, a senior official at the health ministry, told AFP news service Bombali ‘has the potential to infect human cells’.
However, he said it remains unknown to scientists if it has already been passed to any humans, or even if it can cause Ebola virus disease.
EVD, caused by the virus with its namesake, kills around 50 per cent of people it strikes – but there is no proven treatment available.
Government officials in Sierra Leone are now conducting further research on the Bombali virus, in hope of finding out if it has infected any humans.
Harold Thomas, of the health ministry, said: ‘As precautionary measures, people should refrain from eating bats.’
If it is proven Bombali ebolavirus, as it is likely to be officially titled, can cause EVD, it will become the sixth known strain that can.
Health ministers in the African nation have now urged millions living in the country to avoid eating bats – a local delicacy (stock)
Five already can, including the Zaire strain, considered responsible for the most recent outbreak of Ebola in the DRC.
Officials in the country branded the outbreak a ‘public health emergency’ when it was first declared in April.
All nine neighbouring countries were promptly alerted about the concerning outbreak of Ebola, which can cause severe bleeding.
The outbreak began in the poorly-connected region of Ikoko-Impenge and Bikoro – in the north east of the DRC.
It travelled 80 miles (130km) north to Mbandaka, a port city on the river Congo – an essential waterway – with around 1.2 million inhabitants.
There was a ‘major concern’ it would spread to Kinshasa – 364 miles (586km) south on the river, where 12 million people live.
The capital of the DRC has an international airport with regular flights to European cities Zurich, Frankfurt and Brussels.
The 2014 international response to the Ebola pandemic drew criticism for moving too slowly and prompted an apology from the WHO.
But international aid teams moved much quicker in response to the latest outbreak – with vaccination campaigns in several regions.
WHAT IS EBOLA AND HOW DEADLY IS IT?
Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever, killed at least 11,000 across the world after it decimated West Africa and spread rapidly over the space of two years.
That epidemic was officially declared over back in January 2016, when Liberia was announced to be Ebola-free by the WHO.
The country, rocked by back-to-back civil wars that ended in 2003, was hit the hardest by the fever, with 40 per cent of the deaths having occurred there.
Sierra Leone reported the highest number of Ebola cases, with nearly of all those infected having been residents of the nation.
WHERE DID IT BEGIN?
An analysis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found the outbreak began in Guinea – which neighbours Liberia and Sierra Leone.
A team of international researchers were able to trace the epidemic back to a two-year-old boy in Meliandou – about 400 miles (650km) from the capital, Conakry.
Emile Ouamouno, known more commonly as Patient Zero, may have contracted the deadly virus by playing with bats in a hollow tree, a study suggested.
HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE STRUCK DOWN?
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Figures show nearly 29,000 people were infected from Ebola – meaning the virus killed around 40 per cent of those it struck.
Cases and deaths were also reported in Nigeria, Mali and the US – but on a much smaller scale, with 15 fatalities between the three nations.
Health officials in Guinea reported a mysterious bug in the south-eastern regions of the country before the WHO confirmed it was Ebola.
Ebola was first identified by scientists in 1976, but the most recent outbreak dwarfed all other ones recorded in history, figures show.
HOW DID HUMANS CONTRACT THE VIRUS?
Scientists believe Ebola is most often passed to humans by fruit bats, but antelope, porcupines, gorillas and chimpanzees could also be to blame.
It can be transmitted between humans through blood, secretions and other bodily fluids of people – and surfaces – that have been infected.
IS THERE A TREATMENT?
The WHO warns that there is ‘no proven treatment’ for Ebola – but dozens of drugs and jabs are being tested in case of a similarly devastating outbreak.
Hope exists though, after an experimental vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV, protected nearly 6,000 people. The results were published in The Lancet journal.