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The making of...Outbreak: The Truth About Ebola

By Director Dan Edge

We had been filming in the jungle for three days when the local children asked us if we wanted to see the ‘bat tree’. They led us down a steep hunters’ path until we reached a towering kola tree – dead, sharp, blackened and burned, pointing straight into the sky like a malevolent finger. The trunk was hollow and formed a natural cave, and the boys raced ahead of us, chattering excitedly.

Then they told us a story.

In December 2013, the boys said, they were playing in the forest when they heard strange chirruping noises coming from the kola tree. They crept into the cavernous trunk and discovered that thousands of bats were nesting there. The boys began to kill the bats with sharpened sticks; then they asked the teenagers in their village to help them light a fire to smoke out their prey. That day they killed hundreds of bats. And then they ate them.

A few days later, on Christmas Day, a little boy called Emile Ouamanou fell ill with a fever and diarrhea. The locals thought it was malaria, or cholera, or even a witch’s curse. Then Emile died. Nobody knew it yet, but the world’s worst Ebola outbreak had just begun.

It’s impossible to prove that the kola tree was the source of the epidemic. Scientists are fairly sure that bats are the natural ‘reservoir’ for the Ebola virus, although it’s not yet completely certain. But no-one disputes that little Emile was ‘Patient Zero’, and that the virus began to spread from his village, to the next, eventually killing more than 11,000 people and causing panic and hysteria across the world.

Along with my producer, Sasha Achilli, I spent almost six months in West Africa attempting to re-trace the path of the virus, in an effort to understand the story of what happened before the world started paying attention, and to unravel the combination of bad luck, mistakes and complacency that led to so many deaths.

We were filming in the middle of an ongoing infectious outbreak, so from the beginning we were careful to the point of paranoia. Ebola may not be as contagious as many people think – the virus spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected, symptomatic person – but the risks were nevertheless real.

Our team had one very simple rule – no physical contact. For months on the ground in West Africa, we didn’t shake hands with anyone, we washed our hands religiously, and we disinfected all our equipment on a daily basis.

As we were not dealing directly with patients, there was in fact a very low risk that either of us would get Ebola. But what was perfectly possible – and genuinely frightening – was that one of us would get malaria, or dysentery, both common in West Africa and both of which share early symptoms with Ebola. That could result in being carted off to a holding center with other suspected Ebola patients – where there would be a very real risk that we would end up contracting the virus.

So we were extraordinarily careful about our health. We ate well, didn’t drink alcohol, and were religious about our malaria tablets. I took my temperature several times a day, constantly on the lookout for early symptoms of the virus.

We were in West Africa pretty much constantly from September through till February, although I came home every few weeks to be with my family. What happened back in the United Kingdom was fascinating and infuriating. My wife and children were very understanding – they knew what I was doing, they understood how Ebola transmits, and they understood that it was extremely unlikely that I would get sick. But outside of my immediate family, I was an outcast. Parents backed away from me in the school playground. Our social life dried up. Still now, months after I came home for good, there are people who quite obviously make a hasty exit when I enter a room. And I’m pretty sure that didn’t used to happen before I went to West Africa.

I do understand the fear that some people feel, although it’s based on a basic ignorance about how the virus transmits. But it also illustrates an important and serious point about why this outbreak spiraled out of control. The western world was frightened by this outbreak. And the west’s response – initially at least – was to run from the danger, restrict travel, and try to close borders. Health workers who bravely travelled to West Africa to try to save lives were vilified for the possibility they might bring Ebola home with them. And that panic, in part, led to a delay in the international response that cost thousands of lives.

As I stood at the ‘bat tree’ in the Guinean jungle, it was an extraordinary and eerie thought that this might have been the very source of a chain reaction that would ultimately make headlines all over the world, threaten regional stability in West Africa, and reveal that we are utterly unprepared to deal with a global infectious outbreak. It was a dizzying moment, a kind of journalistic vertigo.

But it also made me realize that it’s no longer possible to argue that what happens on the other side of the world doesn’t matter to us all. Cheap air travel, and better transport in the developing world mean that an outbreak that starts in a tiny village in the jungle in Guinea can be in New York or London less than 24 hours later. This is a new reality, and numerous health officials confided to us as we made this film that the world simply isn’t ready for this new reality. Everywhere we went in West Africa, locals implored us – please don’t forget us when this outbreak is over. We need help rebuilding our shattered health systems, in building surveillance capacity so that next time, an infectious outbreak can be stopped and contained quicker. And they convinced me that is in in all of our interests to do just that. Standing at the bat tree, I realized that we are all connected, that what happens to a little boy in a tiny village in West Africa can end up having catastrophic and global consequences - and that we ignore the wider world at our peril.