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Keeping safe in Ebola territory

August 4, 2014 at 6:35 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the largest ever, is resonating around the world. One infected American aid worker, treated with an experimental drug and flown back to a special unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta yesterday, is said to be improving.

A second American patient, a Christian missionary, arrives there tomorrow. Agents at U.S. airports are watching for symptoms from travelers. International development banks are assembling aid packages for the affected countries, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. The death toll there has climbed to at least 887 people. More than 1,600 have been sickened by the virus since it first spread in February.

Jeffrey Stern is there on assignment for “Vanity Fair.” I spoke with him by Skype from Guinea short time ago.

Jeffrey, you have been to the village where we believe that this outbreak began. What did you see there?

JEFFREY STERN, Vanity Fair: Well, the village has really been — I mean, it’s really been decimated. They lost about 40 people, and it is a small village, only about 300 or 400. And they sort have been shunned.

They’re down a really inaccessible, narrow dirt path. The taxies don’t go there anymore. They are having a hard time doing business with other people. And they have actually abided by the government’s request that people don’t hunt this — quote, unquote — “bush meat anymore,” which means they’re actually — they literally said, we’re hungry. So it’s sort of a scourge that continues to have an effect.

GWEN IFILL: Where is this village? Is it especially rural and what happen to people who have survived this so far?

JEFFREY STERN: Yes. Well, it is and it isn’t. This is one of the things that is interesting. It is fairly rural. It is in what they call the forest region in Gueckedou in Guinea.

But it’s been — the area around it has been thinned out and deforested a little bit. And it’s not quite as inaccessible as it once was. And the other thing is, this has played a major part in the outbreak because people are fairly mobile and they’re able to move across borders, to neighboring towns.

And that’s allowed this to sort of spring up in various places. And it’s why we see it now in three or four countries.

GWEN IFILL: And as it has sprung up, as it has spread, is there a health infrastructure that exists at all to contain it?

JEFFREY STERN: Yes, well, it’s a good point. The ministry of health care was really weak before the international community descended upon it. And the ambassador here put it like this.

He said there is an imbalance between sovereignty and resources. It’s been sort of a tough balance. I think for the most part, though, the story is one of fairly remarkable success. There is a little bit of disorganization sort of getting out of its lane and interfering with another, but for the most part the international community has come together, and for the most part really respected the sovereignty of the ministry and tried to use this as an opportunity to build up capacity.

That hasn’t obviously worked perfectly. And it’s still a massive outbreak they’re trying to deal with in all the different countries.

GWEN IFILL: Is part of the — talking about the people who are most affected, has been part of the spread due to — we have heard tales of just fear, cultural superstitions, resistance to outside help?

JEFFREY STERN: There has never been an outbreak anywhere near this. And there is just — there is no reason for anyone to have it on their radar that this may have been Ebola from the beginning, which is part of the reason it took a while for people to understand and accept that this is Ebola, this is something called Ebola.

And it’s why — it’s one of many reasons why now many people still don’t, still don’t accept that it exists, still don’t accept that it’s worth cooperating with health officials. And it’s — obviously, it’s created huge problems, because one of the things you have to do is, you have to trace contacts.

Is there is an infected person, you need to monitor every single person they come in contact with. It’s difficult enough as it is. Of course, it’s much more difficult if they don’t want to you look at them.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s difficult part of what you are doing is dispensing of corpses, bodies, victims. That also has to be taught as well.

JEFFREY STERN: Yes, exactly, another good point.

I just got a text message a couple of days ago from the ministry of health saying that the Red Cross will come and disinfect a corpse if you have one, that the corpses are highly contagious. We will let you deal with your corpse and do funeral rites in the traditional way you want, but let us come and disinfect it first.

So, it is something that people don’t love. I mean, ideally you would take the corpse away and dispense with it, because obviously it is highly contagious. But that would only add to the resistance. And so this is kind of a compromise that is better than nothing.

GWEN IFILL: Here in the U.S., there has been so much discussion about the two American victims who are going to come back to Emory Hospital and be put in highly secure — highly secure environments in order to attempt to treat the virus.

I’m wondering how you, as you go around, as you go to this village, as you talk to people in your reporting, how you protect yourself.

JEFFREY STERN: Yes. Well, there’s a few things.

I mean, one of the things is that there are people who would reject the idea that it’s a highly contagious virus, because it needs direct human-to-human transmission. It can’t live in the water like cholera. It is not aerosolized. You can’t inhale it.

But even so, it’s still scary to be around. Even if you have that knowledge in the back of your mind, I mean, there’s something very sort of primal about being around it and about seeing people with these big yellow space suits.

And I think that a lot of us would admit that there is always a moment where, you know, it’s like, could I possibly have been infected that one time? And it’s irrational, and you know that there’s almost no chance that you could have.

And the other thing to keep in mind is, this is West Africa. So the early symptoms of Ebola being fever, headache, upset stomach, there is always a question of, you know, do I have Ebola or is it Tuesday? And that’s something that I think is difficult for us, and I think it’s difficult for them too. It’s one of the reasons it’s become so difficult to identify this early.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s been a very difficult story to cover even at a distance. Thank you for looking at it up close for “Vanity Fair.”

Jeffrey Stern, thanks.

JEFFREY STERN: Thank you, Gwen. I appreciate it.