According to recent research scientists say that three species of bats that are eaten by people in central Africa may be carriers of the Ebola virus that has killed hundreds of humans and great apes.
Although the bats do not show any evidence of infection, according to the International Centre for Medical Research in Franceville, Gabon, they have discovered genetic evidence or an immune response in the animals, captured during outbreaks between 2001 and 2003.
Eric Leroy and his colleagues say that they have found evidence of asymptomatic infection by Ebola virus in three species of fruit bat, suggesting that the animals may be acting as a reservoir for the deadly virus.
The World Health Organisation says that Ebola haemorrhagic fever, which was first identified in 1976, is one of the most virulent viral diseases.
It damages blood vessels and can cause extensive bleeding, diarrhoea and shock.
In 1995 the virus killed more than 240 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other outbreaks have resulted in 254 deaths between 2001 and 2005 in Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The virus which is transmitted by infected body fluids almost always kills its victims, and there is no cure for it.
In order to find potential reservoirs of infection, Leroy and his team captured and tested more than 1,000 animals in Ebola-infected areas of Africa.
It appeared that each of the bat species that showed evidence of the virus had a geographical range that included regions where human outbreaks of Ebola had occurred.
The researchers say the findings could help to reduce infections in both great apes and people.
Leroy adds that human infection from fruit bats might in part be countered by education.
The report is published in the science journal Nature.