Toronto journo risks life to report on Ebola

Jennifer Yang in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. (Courtesy of Jennifer Yang)

Jennifer Yang in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. (Courtesy of Jennifer Yang)

As the deadly Ebola virus wreaks havoc on West Africa, one Toronto reporter risked her health to bear witness to its devastation.

In early August, Toronto Star global health correspondent Jennifer Yang made a 10-day visit to the village of Kailahun in eastern Sierra Leone to report on the Ebola crisis in person.

Yang says that on the ground, “you really see how deprived they are of resources and how hard they are working and (the) genuine bravery and sacrifices that local Sierra Leoneans are making every day to try to get a hold of this thing.” She added, “you don’t really appreciate the full sense of that until you are there and seeing them in action.”

Since March, Ebola has ravaged areas of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. According to the World Health Organization, as of Thursday, at least 5,357 people had been infected, and 2,630 died in the 2014 outbreak.

Yang took special precautions to protect herself while reporting on the virus. Rather than stay with a family, where the risk of infection was comparatively higher, she took up residence in the area’s only hotel.

“I think in any other situation I would have been fine with (staying in a family’s home), but given an Ebola outbreak you do want to limit your exposure as much as you can,” she said.

Yang’s fellow patrons at the hotel were healthcare workers from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross and the WHO.

“It was pretty no frills,” Yang said, who took cold showers in a room with no electricity.

MSF, a medical relief NGO, worked hard to make their accommodations as hygienic as possible.

MSF installed buckets of chlorinated water throughout the hotel and regularly inspected the kitchen to ensure that food was prepared safely.

Despite their best efforts, people at the hotel did get sick. By that time though, Yang was back in Canada.

Indeed, by the end of August more than 240 healthcare workers had contracted Ebola and more than 120 of them had died, according to the WHO.

In July, one of Sierra Leone’s leading virologists, Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, was killed by the virus he devoted his life to treating.

For Yang, seeing the effects of Ebola first-hand gave her a depth of understanding she never could have had reporting from Toronto.

“For instance, when the Canadian scientists were evacuated from the treatment centre in Kailahun, I knew exactly what kind of impact that would have on the centre’s operations because I had seen the centre in action and I knew how vital they were to the operations of that treatment centre,” Yang said. “So it just gave me that kind of context to understand the impact of a change like that.”

Yang said that because of the outbreak’s severity, she won’t be returning to West Africa in the near future. “Now it’s just a matter of finding news ways to approach the story.”

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