Since its discovery in 1976, outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever have only appeared in certain pockets of sub-Saharan Africa. However, a new study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases indicates that the virus may have spread beyond the continent of Africa. The researchers have found antibodies of the virus in bats in Bangladesh, and worry that the virus has spread to humans in mainland Asia.

Researchers from EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization that specializes in conservation and global health concerns, screened bats in the south Asian country of Bangladesh. Of the 276 bats screened, they found Ebola virus antibodies circulating in the blood streams of about 4 percent of the bats. This finding indicates that the Rousettus fruit bats are a reservoir for Ebola or an Ebola-like virus that has spread to mainland Asia. This finding is particularly troubling because some research has indicated that bats are the primary natural host for the Ebola virus.

"Bats tend to have a bad reputation and that's unfortunate since they provide services that are vital for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Increasingly, spillover of viruses from bats and other wildlife occurs due to increased human activities that bring people into closer contact with wildlife, such as land-use change and agricultural practices. The next step is to determine whether this Ebola virus is actually causing disease in people, and if so, work to develop strategies that reduce contact with bats to protect human health, without harming bats," study co-author and EcoHealth Alliance Vice President Jonathan Epstein said in a statement.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola hemorrhagic fever received its name from a river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the disease was first discovered. The disease is severe and often fatal, with fatality rates being up to 80 percent. Confirmed cases have been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Uganda and the Republic of the Congo, so it was not believed that the virus spread so far to Asia. The disease is characterized by symptoms like rash, fever and internal and external bleeding. There is no standard treatment for the illness.