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How one U.S.-based reporter shines a light on infectious diseases thousands of miles away Date: 11/01/18

Lauren Weber

By Bara Vaida

HuffPost’s Lauren Weber, a public health reporter who covers infectious diseases, has reported on everything from the flu to tuberculosis. More recently, she’s been covering the latest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo with great depth and detail. Weber shared with AHCJ how she has been reporting on the outbreak from thousands of miles away from where it is occurring and provides tips on how other reporters can cover similar stories. She also discussed how she reports on infectious diseases as a daily beat for a national news organization.

Q: How did you start covering the Ebola outbreak, even though you are sitting at a desk in Washington?

A: I talked HuffPost into giving me a full-time public health policy beat in April this year, and I consider Ebola to be a huge part of this beat. Though Ebola is a global health topic, infectious disease outbreaks are happening more frequently and consistently around the globe (here’s one of her stories) with rapid population growth, increased travel, more people being in places they had never lived before and the changing environment. And outbreaks see no borders and impact the world. So you have to cover Ebola.

Q: How do you do it from Washington, when the outbreak is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

A: Twitter is very, very helpful. I follow the World Health Organization, which has completely revamped their outreach and communications around infectious disease outbreaks. You can quickly be alerted to new developments by turning on Twitter notifications for Peter Salama, (WHO deputy director general for emergency preparedness and response). I also get notifications from infectious disease reporter Helen Branswell (with Stat), Ron Klain (Obama’s former Ebola czar), the DRC’s Ministry of Health, and Dr. Tedros, the WHO head — along with other sources serving as part of the response on the ground in DRC and the wonderful community of people who follow outbreaks closely and amplify important news. That said, while Twitter has been invaluable — you can’t just rely on tweets. I frequently call up sources on the ground in all of the above organizations, along with Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee, which are able to paint an even fuller picture of what is happening.

Q: I had heard that WHO in the past was notoriously terrible in their media communications. What changed?

A: Unlike four years ago, everyone is putting out much more information — the WHO should be applauded for their new standard of communication, along with the DRC. The DRC’s Ministry of Health sends out a daily analysis of the new suspected and confirmed cases, and the WHO has been much more forthcoming with data. The WHO even held a Facebook Live event about a month ago where anyone could ask questions about what was going on Now, are they giving me everything I want? No. Did I have to prove myself? Yes.

Q: How does a reporter “prove themselves?”

A: This June, I noticed that an unprecedented six of the most worrisome infectious disease outbreaks — all of which are on the WHO’s Blueprint priority disease list — were all happening at the same time (Ebola, MERS, Zika, Nipah virus, Lassa Fever and Rift Valley Fever) and no one was reporting on it. So I wrote an enterprise piece called “More Dangerous Outbreaks Are Happening. Why Aren’t We Worried About The Next Epidemic,” which garnered a lot of attention about the rising danger of the uptick of such outbreaks. And on my next interview with the WHO about Ebola two weeks later, they offered me the chance to talk with Peter Salama. In the middle of the interview, he said, “Lauren, you should really read this story, “More Dangerous Outbreaks are Happening,” and I said, “Well, actually, I wrote that story.” He’s been happy to speak with me ever since. But really, what I think it comes down to is being consistent and constant in my coverage and my beat — and breaking news along the way. That has made the WHO (and others) more incentivized to call me back.

Q: What is an obstacle for you in your continued coverage of this story?

A: I would love to be in the DRC to be able to talk to (Ebola) patients and people in the community who are scared. Lena Sun and Lenny Bernstein of The Washington Post had a great piece from the Uganda-DRC border doing just this — and that’s the kind of journalism we should see more of. I am talking to people in leadership and power, NGO folks and some service providers — and that is an incomplete picture without the voices of the people affected by this outbreak. But it is better than no picture. For example, my sources at the International Rescue Committee in the DRC really highlighted their community resistance (to medical attention and humanitarian aid) concerns early on to me, and it’s made a difference to have that on-the-ground aspect in my reporting.

Q: Moving on to other aspects of the infectious disease beat, what about covering the flu this season? I know reporters are always looking for new angles on how to cover this story.

A: This spring, I noticed in looking at CDC data that it was about to be the deadliest seasonal flu season on record in terms of pediatric deaths. Instead of writing a day-of story that only spoke with experts on the day pediatric flu deaths tragically passed the record, I wanted to tell that story through the lens of a family that knew intimately what it was like to be a part of that horrific statistic. So I spent a few weeks reaching out to families who had talked about losing a child to the flu on GoFundMe, Facebook and Twitter. Eventually, the Lobo family agreed to share their story about their daughter Mia – and the story was shared widely because of their frankness about the tragedy. Other resources to talk to include Families Fighting Flu and, of course, the CDC flu team. They are remarkably generous with their time and sent me countless studies and data that helped strengthen the story.

Q: Any other resource suggestions for covering infectious diseases?

A: There are so many things going on with this beat, but I have found that usually, people are happy to talk to you because there are fewer and fewer infectious disease and public health reporters in general. So people want to tell their story. Ultimately though, you need to cast a wide net. Find think tanks, patients, advocates and university professors and always talk to public health officers. Subscribe to every newsletter the CDC, NIH, HHS and USAID sends out. And build those source relationships with experts and government officials who can steer you in the right direction. For example, one of my favorite public health officers to talk to is Jeffery Duchin, who is the public health officer for King County in Seattle and whom I cold-called to talk over a story months ago. He has been invaluable in my coverage ever since.

Lauren Weber is a public health policy reporter for HuffPost, reporting on a variety of global and national public health issues, including Ebola, drug-resistant tuberculosis, hepatitis A outbreaks, rural hospital closures and the conditions for migrant detainees in the federal prison system. She is also a 2017 USC Annenberg Health Journalism National Fellow. Weber formerly was the creator and editor of The Morning Email, HuffPost's weekday rundown of the news that you need to know for the day that she launched and grew to nearly a million subscribers. She was a 2018 Webby honoree and 2018 Digiday Publishing Awards finalist for The Morning Email. You also used to be able to hear her as HuffPost's voice on Amazon Echo.