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Covering the link between environmental causes and disease Date: 06/24/19

Lois Parshley

By Lois Parshley

As we approached over the windswept high veld of Bloemfontein, South Africa, Kobus Steenkamp’s sheep farm was just a low speck on the horizon. The group of international scientists bounced over the red earth, past broken windows and barbed wire, parched earth and bleached grass, everything sharp. Steenkamp’s farm was one of 361 isolated locations the researchers had selected based on randomized GPS coordinates. Now, the scientists bounced toward the paddocks as part of a study on the deadly Rift Valley fever, a zoonotic disease that devastates livestock and is potentially lethal to humans.

In 2011, Steenkamp lost much of his flock to the disease. Weaponized by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War; today, its spread is feared by American farmers and the National Security Agency alike. But in the West, the virus isn’t yet a household name. That Steenkamp’s plight feels distant to Western audiences is one of the biggest challenges in this kind of reporting: How do you make the unseen relatable? It’s a problem that extends far beyond the developing world.

That’s one of the reasons I cover the intersection of health and environmental issues, topics that are deeply interconnected but often reported from different corners of a newsroom. In South Africa, that meant following researchers who were hoping to be the first to use climate models to predict disease outbreaks. Here, the link between environmental causes and disease was clear: The mosquito populations that are a vector for the disease are closely linked to rainfall. But sometimes the intersection is less obvious. Reporting on Ebola from West Africa for the Atlantic, for example, I was surprised to hear some epidemiologists believe disease emergence could be mapped the way geologists map earthquake risk. The risk is highest in places where land use has recently changed – as it did in Liberia, where poverty and displacement have led people to cut aggressively into jungle, to log forests, to hunt farther away from urban centers.

The problem with this kind of reporting is that frequently my inquiries run ahead of data-supported answers. All too often in interviews, a researcher will shrug and tell me, “That’s a good question!” That can make it hard to find and pitch stories with a concrete narrative – which usually require a certain amount of scientific certainty. It also means every reporting project requires a grasp of multiple scientific disciplines, as well as an empathetic approach to interviews. My reporting in South Africa, for instance, included talking laboratory politics during a trip to a BLS4 lab, but also interviewing a distraught farmer about one of the worst days of his life.

But while challenging, this kind of reporting is important. Climate change coverage can feel repetitive and distant. And simply put, people care about people. So I try to highlight the ways a changing environment is already impacting human lives.

Teasing apart the ways we interact and depend on the environment around us sheds light on phenomena that can appear inexplicable, or put individual trends into a larger context. In a moment where the media, and facts in general, are in question, explaining what is in fact, knowable about the changing world around us has never felt more relevant.

Lois Parshley is an independent journalist and photographer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @loisparshley.