When you’re reporting in a country that has confirmed or suspected Ebola cases, staying healthy should obviously be your top priority. There are no specific guidelines for journalists on how to avoid Ebola infection. When we asked a WHO spokesperson for advice, he emailed back: “Don’t touch visibly sick people and bodies of deceased persons. That’s all.”
Many journalists who have covered Ebola close-up have taken extra precautions to further minimize the risk, however. They include things like:
- Shake as few hands as possible and avoid other forms of physical contact. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has a no-touching policy. Emulate it.
- Frequently wash or disinfect hands with bleach.
- Try not to touch your face or put fingers in your mouth.
- When visiting an Ebola treatment center or a home or village with Ebola patients, wear rubber boots that are easy to clean and disinfect;
- Where possible, conduct interviews outdoors;
- Avoid taxis and other vehicles that might have been used to transport Ebola patients;
- Ask health workers, experts, officials, and other journalists about the current situation on the ground and the risk at the places you’re visiting, and follow their recommendations.
When you’re reporting in a foreign country, make sure you have the phone number of your own country’s embassy, if there is one, so you can contact them if you’re in trouble; having a contact at the health ministry is also a good idea. (Sometimes, your embassy will appreciate if you let them know that you’re visiting, when, and which areas you’re going to.) It’s handy to have a cell phone with a local number—SIM cards are for sale almost everywhere—so you’re easier to contact and you can make local calls. Keep the battery charged.
If you have health and/or travel insurance—whether arranged by yourself or by your employer—check if there are any restrictions before you set out, and inquire whether you will be repatriated in case you get sick.
If you suspect you may have been exposed to the Ebola virus or have become infected, avoid contact with other people; seek medical attention and tell your doctor what happened.
The risk to you is not just from the Ebola virus. At points in the West African outbreak, people have become frightened and angry and have lashed out at officials trying to look for cases or collect sick people to take them to treatment centers. In Guinea, members of a team raising awareness of Ebola were killed, as were journalists accompanying them.
So be aware of your surroundings. If people gather to watch you do your work – whether it is taking pictures or shooting video or interviewing someone – keep an eye on bystanders. If people become hostile or express anger at what you are doing, it is probably time to move on.
On the whole, the risk for reporters does not appear to be high. There are no reports of journalists who have contracted Ebola during any of the outbreaks before 2014; in the current epidemic in West Africa, the only known case is a videographer and journalist from the United States named Ashoka Mukpo, who became infected in Liberia in September 2014. (He was flown to the United States, treated at the Nebraska Medical Center, and survived.)
Mukpo had been filming in Liberia for several weeks; it’s not clear exactly how he got infected, but he reportedly believes it happened after he cleaned a car in which an Ebola patient had died, and water splashed on him.