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Covering the Ebola story: A Unique Challenge

Categories: Health, Journalism, Politics, Technology & Science, World


By Greg Reaume
Managing Editor, CBC News Coverage

It's been 10 months since the first cases of Ebola surfaced in the West African country of Guinea. Since then the disease has spread rapidly. From village to village, region to region, nation to nation creating a public health challenge of monumental proportions. And yet few Western journalists have ventured to the stricken zones to cover this dangerous, difficult, logistically daunting story.

By mid-August we at CBC had decided that reporting on the story from afar wasn't enough. Despite the obvious risks, we had to be there. But establishing effective safety protocols and a workable coverage plan was complex and time-consuming - so much so, that last night was Adrienne Arsenault's first report from the region.

The first challenge was simply identifying the crew. We needed a team with skill and experience operating in difficult, dangerous conditions. Each member of the team had to be comfortable accepting an unusual degree of personal risk. They not only had to guard against getting Ebola, they had to operate in a chaotic, increasingly unstable region with broken-down infrastructure and spreading fear.

All of the intelligence we had gathered from public health officials and security experts suggested that a smaller group could operate more safely than a larger one. A smaller group could travel with fewer vehicles, fewer driver/fixers and less local support. We had to control our environment and our close contacts as much as possible to minimize the risk of infection.

In the end we went with a three-person crew: correspondent Adrienne Arsenault, producer Stephanie Jenzer and cameraman/editor Jean-François Bisson. They will file for all CBC News platforms including on-line, radio and television. And they'll be accompanied every step in Liberia by a highly-trained personal security expert - a former British military officer.

But there was much to do before leaving. Adrienne, Stephanie and Jean-François each needed 14 personal protection suits and careful instruction in how to use them. The suits will be double-bagged and destroyed after a single wearing. The crew practiced donning and doffing the cumbersome gear according to rigid protocols. Dr. Michael Gardam, one of Canada's foremost infectious disease experts, and Dr. Tim Jagatic with Médecins Sans Frontières, spent hours educating our team on Ebola's characteristics and how to handle specific scenarios.

We had to obtain special, easily-disinfected covers for cameras and other key pieces of equipment. The crew also brought along older gear that can simply be thrown out after the assignment. They stocked up with boxes of disposable rubber gloves and bleach-based wipes. On the ground in Liberia, each person will take her or his own temperature twice a day and report the readings to specific contacts in Toronto. Any significant rise will trigger a blood test and possible extraction according to a pre-determined protocol.

Upon returning from Liberia, more precautions will be necessary. It's believed Ebola symptoms can appear up to 21 days after infection. While public health officials advised us that there is no need to quarantine our crew members if we continue to monitor their temperature and they remain symptom-free, we don't want to risk other staff members feeling uncomfortable in their presence. So after their return, the crew will work from home for three weeks.

The most important stories are sometimes the most difficult to cover. In this case we're dealing with a raging virus which, according to the World Health Organization, could claim more than a million lives. That's reason enough to give the story careful attention. But the fact that it's happening on a continent too often ignored by Western media is added incentive. As the public broadcaster, CBC News felt an obligation to confront the challenges, mitigate the risks as best we could, and go to the source.

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