Ebola a constant threat in reporting from Liberia
Oct. 03, 2014
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — The nurse excitedly grabbed the sheet of paper with 11-year-old Chancey's lab results. "It's negative, it's negative," she shouted above the sound of her boots pounding the gravel as she ran toward the outdoor Ebola ward.
Soon the boy in a neon green T-shirt came running to the hole in the orange plastic fencing to greet her. The barrier separates health workers from those sick with one of the world's deadliest diseases.
"We're so glad he's going to make it. His little brothers will really need him now — their mother just died last night," a nurse told me.
Instantly that moment of rare joy amid Liberia's Ebola epidemic turned to sorrow, and I could no longer make eye contact with the beaming boy. Knowing that he did not yet know his mother was dead — and I did — was just too much.
Here in Liberia, more than 2,000 people have lost their lives to a disease that shows no mercy, and even the stories of survivors are tainted with unspeakable loss. Radio talk shows describe infants trying to breastfeed off dead mothers, orphans whose relatives are so afraid of contagion that they refuse to take in brokenhearted children.
For months I had pored over situation reports from the World Health Organization and listened to experts describe the possibility of a disaster beyond measure as the Ebola epidemic gathered speed. Nothing prepares you, though, for the heartbreak and the fear now ravaging Liberia.
Krista Larson, an Associated Press correspondent based in Dakar, Senegal, arrived in Monrovia on Sept. 25 to join AP staff covering the Ebola epidemic. Here she describes some of her experiences.
Friends and family had begged me not to go. A housekeeper cried as I left for the airport and gave me a crucifix that she told me not to take it off even though I am not a Catholic. Even my assistant at the plastic baggage wrap station in the steamy overcrowded airport at midnight was sure this was all just some horrible mix-up. "Liberia? You mean Nigeria? You know people are dying there!"
The dangers of covering this story were brought home Thursday with word that Ashoka Mukpo, an American freelance cameraman who had just taken a job in Liberia with NBC, was diagnosed with Ebola and is scheduled to return to the U.S. for treatment.
After meeting my colleagues in Morocco, we embarked on a flight full of other journalists and aid workers for Liberia on one of the last commercial airlines still servicing the country.
We arrived in Monrovia at 3 a.m. in a thunderstorm, and after a sleepless flight, we washed our hands in a mixture of bleach and water for the first time and had our temperatures taken before we picked up the soggy luggage that was not lost by our airline. Rainy season in sub-Saharan Africa is always a sweaty endeavor, and it takes every bit of self-discipline to avoid touching your face to wipe the sweat from your brow.
Ebola is spread only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of people showing symptoms of the disease. That said, people have fallen sick after coming into contact with soiled linens. Vigorous hand-washing is the mainstay of Ebola prevention, though at this point it's nearly impossible to know who is sick with Ebola and who might just have malaria or the flu.
The Ebola patients I saw lined up outside the clinic my first day of reporting were not bleeding from the eyes — we're told that actually happens only in a minority of cases. Instead, we found a very weak and tired boy, and I winced at the sight of his mother touching his sweaty face with her bare hands. It might only be a matter of time before she too becomes sick.
It's hard to forget the reason why we are in Monrovia: When you make a call with a local phone number a public service message reminds you "Ebola is real!" before the call goes through. The wailing of ambulance sirens is constant, and men can be seen pushing the sick in wheelbarrows when no such emergency vehicle is available.
I'm here as part of a team of AP reporters including photographers Jerome Delay and Abbas Dulleh, video producer Andrew Drake, correspondent Jonathan Paye-Layleh and television contributor Wade Williams, who fearlessly interviews Ebola victims with her warm, commanding voice.
"Wear long sleeves and don't touch anyone," she said firmly as I prepared to get out of her car and visit an Ebola clinic for the first time last week. "And leave your bag in the car."
I admit I was initially afraid to come to Liberia. Unlike the wars and coups I have covered, you cannot see or avoid Ebola as you can a fighter. If you are shot, you know to seek medical attention immediately. Ebola's incubation period, by contrast, is up to 21 days. Every sore throat, every achy muscle can set off anxiety.
And yet the world needs to know what is happening here: Ebola is obliterating entire neighborhoods, leaving orphaned children with no one to lean on but a tree.
More and more international journalists are starting to come. Several dozen working for outlets ranging from American newspapers to European radio are now taking Liberia's story to an ever-widening audience.
Aid workers in West Africa say they need more than just gloves and supplies. They need more people willing to come here despite the personal risks. The anguish and pain are too much for Liberia to bear alone.
Follow Krista Larson at https://www.twitter.com/klarsonafrica.