Inside the Ebola Outbreak

September 5, 2014
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

Earlier this week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Friedan issued a dire warning that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is “spiraling out of control.”

That dovetails with what FRONTLINE producer and director Wael Dabbous saw firsthand.

“It felt like being in a war zone where the enemy is invisible,” says Dabbous, who recently spent two weeks on the ground in Sierra Leone filming the epidemic-up close with reporter Shaunagh Connaire.

Ebola Outbreak, the resulting documentary, premieres on FRONTLINE Tuesday, Sept. 9 (followed by Hunting Boko Haram, an investigation of the Nigerian government’s efforts to “Bring Back Our Girls”).

The film is largely set at an emergency field hospital run by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), where the morgue is overflowing, victims keep on coming, and medical staff are overwhelmed. Ebola Outbreak also follows an investigator from Sierra Leone’s Ebola surveillance unit, who travels into villages looking for victims — and trying to identify and isolate everyone they might have come into contact with.

It’s an intimate, devastating look at the human toll of an outbreak with no end in sight — and Dabbous (who previously produced FRONTLINE’s Emmy-winning Syria Undercover) says filming it was worth the risk.

Why did you decide to travel to Sierra Leone to film the Ebola outbreak?

I’ve always been a calculated risk-taker with the stories that I choose to cover, but you can be almost crippled by fear at the prospect of something like Ebola. It was a terrifying prospect at first. But these are people who are really suffering, and this is an important story worth telling.

After speaking with some of the world’s leading tropical disease experts, we realized that it would be possible to travel into the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak to make a documentary without accidentally contracting the disease in the process. Learning that the virus isn’t airborne helped us deal with the fear and understand how to manage the risk.

And once Doctors Without Borders told us they were setting up a brand new Ebola field hospital to combat the disease in eastern Sierra Leone, where an untold crisis was unfolding, we realized that was where we needed to go. We wanted to capture the day-to-day work not only of the international staff working to combat the epidemic, but also the challenges faced by local health workers trying to contain the outbreak.

The biggest challenge, though, was capturing the perspective of the patients and families whose lives are being torn apart as they rapidly lose loved ones to a disease that they’d never encountered before.

How did you protect yourself from contracting Ebola?

The absolute rule was, “Don’t touch anyone.” At the start, it was hard — your natural instinct is to shake someone’s hand, especially when you’re in an unfamiliar place and meeting new people constantly. It goes against your human instincts. But in light of what was happening, no one was offended when you kept your distance. It’s a huge challenge, though, when you’re trying to make an intimate documentary and capture human stories.

“The absolute rule was, ‘Don’t touch anyone.'”

Beyond that, in advance, we had a session with an ex-military biohazards specialist, who took us through the process of suiting up like the doctors and nurses in the isolation wards do. And what we did daily, on the ground, was use hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes on all the equipment. We tried to stay in the open as much as possible and kept roughly a two-meter distance from everyone. We washed our hands in chlorine constantly, and decontaminated the soles of our shoes when getting in and out of vehicles, and going in and out of the hospital.

Was what you saw on the ground different from what you expected to see at the epicenter of this epidemic?

Yes. I went in expecting things to be more in control than the reality. You read the coverage and know that the virus has spread so rapidly, to so many people, that traditional modes of containment can’t keep up — and that local hospitals are overwhelmed and barely functioning because so many doctors and nurses have died. But nothing prepares you for the chaos these people are actually dealing with. You wonder how they face the challenge day in and day out. The morgue was overflowing, the gravediggers were struggling to keep up, and the reality was worse than we had ever imagined.

“The morgue was overflowing, the gravediggers were struggling to keep up, and the reality was worse than we had ever imagined.”

Did you come away with any sense of hope?

Manjo Lamin, the main Sierra Leone health surveillance team member we followed, was inspiring. He was continuing with his mission of trying to help eradicate the disease, even though he’d had an Ebola scare himself after an accident just a few weeks before we met him, when he pricked himself with a dirty needle from an Ebola patient who later died. You’d think most people would probably give up, after that. But this is just an obsession for him. Not a day went by that he wasn’t heading out to another village to track down victims and help stop them from passing on the disease. His determination, and his hope, was quite inspiring.

In the big picture, though, health experts are saying that what we’re seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg, and that a bigger global response is needed in order to stem the tide.

[Editor’s Note: This week, in a statement to the United Nations, MSF international president Dr. Joanne Liu condemned the scope of the international community’s actions to date — describing the global response so far as “too little, too late,” and calling for the immediate deployment of resources and personnel from U.N. member states.]

How do you hope the U.S. audience will respond when they watch this documentary?

A lot of the coverage we’ve seen so far treats this as such a foreign crisis: “It’s over there. It’s happening in another place that’s very different from here.” I hope that this film helps to show that this is a universal story. When a threat comes out of nowhere that challenges your way of life, that will affect you no matter which part of the world you’re in. And nobody wants to wake up and find themselves at the heart of the deadliest-ever outbreak of Ebola.

I hope people will recognize that while the crisis is massive, there’s a lot that can be done to help — whether it’s new research, or an increased international response, or getting behind organizations like Doctors Without Borders that are working to stop the disease from spreading.

FRONTLINE’s Ebola Outbreak (followed by Hunting Boko Haram) premieres Tuesday, Sept. 9 on air and online (check local listings). Watch a preview below.

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