Journalist Who Has Seen Ebola Up Close Answers All Your Questions

There are many rumors swirling about Ebola, how devastating of a virus it can be and whether we should be giving people treatment for it. But what are the people saying that see it firsthand?

Earlier today, New York Times video journalist Ben C. Solomon participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session.

Solomon, who has been in Sierra Leone since Aug. 2nd, took on the questions that many of us have and tackled them after a couple weeks of firsthand experience with the virus. Below is a transcription of his Reddit AMA.

The following questions and answers have been posted without edits to preserve the authenticity of the AMA

Q: What general steps are you taking to ensure that you don't contract ebola?

A: Keeping the virus away is all about being extremely vigilant. It can only be contracted through direct exposure to mucus membranes. Your mouth, your eyes, open wounds. In that sense, it's all about managing what you touch. Chlorine instantly kills the virus, so any thing you touch, you immediately put chlorine on. You don't shake hands, you wash your feet when you come in and out of rooms. We keep a bottle of chlorine on us at all times and are constantly washing. We probably wash our hands and shoes about 50 times a day.

Q: What do you think of other news sources exaggerating the virus outbreak in the US?

A: I think Ebola is a very serious virus and deserves extreme concern and caution. However, the problems of the outbreak here are tied to a lack of education and trust. People don't trust the foreign doctors and some have not been taught how to deal with it better. In tiny villages, we were even hearing rumors about people receiving disinfectant like chlorine and purell as aid and drinking it as some sort of potion. In the US, I think any Ebola contamination would be quarantined and stopped very quickly. The challenges in rural Africa are much more systemic.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about Ebola that exists and is still repeated? (both locally and in global media)

A: Locally: The belief that foreign health workers are trying to spread the disease. In some of the global media: That 90% of those who get Ebola will die. In the current outbreak, almost half of those that contract Ebola survive.

Q: What sorts of questions have people in Sierra Leone been asking you? Have you also been considered suspect?

A: Some people are nervous that I've been to the more dangerous places, but no one is dismissive or angry. Most people are just curious.

Q: What do you think about using experimental drugs in this situation? Obviously, we want to help as many people as possible, but is there a danger that we develop a good scientific base for these drugs' use?

A: If it was me, I'd want the drug. I appreciate the need for strict regulations, but when a patient is very likely to die, it'd be hard to argue with taking a chance.

Q: What experimental drugs?

A: The experimental drug is called Zmapp. Read more here: http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/guinea/qa-experimental-treatments.html

Q: What are your predictions, based on your knowledge, of how this disease will spread to other countries?

A: The incubation period for the Ebola virus is 21 days. You can start showing symptoms anytime between 2 and 21 days. It's completely possible that someone not showing could fly to another country and then start showing symptoms. But it would be very unlikely to spread in a country with more developed health care and better public awareness.

Q: I listened to an interesting NPR piece about a lot of people don't believe Ebola exists and it's just a really bad case of good poisoning/some other known virus killing people. Since you've been in SL covering the epidemic, have you experienced a lot of this "denial"? If so, why do you think people don't believe Ebola exists?

A: Yeah, there is denial. This area has experienced decades of corrupt governments, war and misinformation. There is a natural distrust of the government and there is little faith in Sierra Leone's already poor health care system.

Q: What actually happens to the patients before death? I've read about bleeding eyes and whatnot, but it just seems very vague to me.

A: It varies a lot. It's generally a failure of organs and hemorrhaging, both internal, and in the case of bleeding eyes, external. I'm not a medical expert and as the wards where people with late stages of sickness are heavily quarantined, I haven't many seen deadly cases.

Q: In talking with co-workers it seems that their general perception is that an outbreak in a first world country would be unlikely due to the fact that we are so much more educated about it. While I agree with this to some extent (in that it would be less likely to spread as quickly), I wouldn't personally wouldn't say that it would be "unlikely." Either way my question for you is, how much has lack of education about the disease played a part in it's rapid spread, or do you think the education factor is relatively unimportant due to the longer incubation period of ebola, and by the time one starts showing symptoms he/she has already infected more?

A: Lack of education is a key problem. The incubation period is an important problem in aiding the spread of the disease to other countries. However once its there, places with high levels of education would easily contain it. Here in West Africa, the lack of understanding of the disease make it much harder to contain

Q: If you are exposed will you be willing to be given untested drugs?

A: For me, if I thought I was going to die I'd do everything I can to fight. So yes.

Q: Is there a sense in Sierra Leone that that the worst of it is over? Or are people still bracing for more?

A: I definitely wouldn't say the worst is over. Figures continue to climb and aid agencies are having a tough time keeping up. However, people are starting to accept the messages that Ebola is real and taking the measures to prevent catching it.

Q: Why did it take so long for WHO and other international organizations to respond on the ground? From what I know, Doctors Without Borders has been there for a while, but said in late June they were stretched to the breaking point and up until then were the only group on the ground. I keep wondering if the African Union or UN responded immediately (not just with money), the outbreak would not have been nearly as big. Please correct any wrong info.

A: Doctors Without Borders has been there from the very start. I can't stress how hard they are working to help contain this. They're a fantastic presence here. For WHO it's a lot more complicated. WHO has a permanent presence in Freetown, but no one expected for this outbreak to spread so quickly. There has been no precedent. So in part, they were caught off guard.

Q: Are you working with handlers in Sierra Leone who you knew previous to the outbreak? Have you noticed, either from them or other non-health professionals you've had continuing contact with, noticeable changes in their understanding of Ebola? (ex. you've seen how they've come to trust information from medical professionals, or developed doubts about that information, or something entirely different)

A: People from aid agencies openly acknowledge that there's a learning curve. It took a while to fully appreciate the speed with which it would spread, but now a big portion of the population is very concerned.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what the standard drugs that are being given are and what the experimental drugs are/how prevalent the experimental drugs are? Also about what kind of non-medecine you hear about people taking like swallowing chlorine?

A: Standard treatment involves addressing the symptoms. Dehydration and fever are the most common. Normal treatments like intravenous drips and paracetamol are the first line of attack. The experimental drug, called ZMapp is very rare. Only 3 people have taken it so far

Q: Do you have ebola? And if you did get it would you fly back to America?

A: If I started showing symptoms, I'd likely be medically evacuated to a country with more expertise and better facilities for dealing with hemorrhagic fevers.

Q: Ben - Was amazed by your recent video. How willing were people in the village willing to talk to you on camera? How did you approach them during such a sensitive time?

A: People in Sierra Leone are incredibly kind and open. Even in tough times, the people we've encountered have been more than happy to share their story. Given the stigma associated with Ebola, one must be sensitive when shooting patients. Just like anywhere else in the world, it's important to ask for permission before filming anyone.

Q: Are you afraid of contracting the disease? Have you feel any fear for your safety when reporting on a story?

A: Of course. Ebola has a powerful psychological effect. But we're taking necessary the steps to protect ourselves.

Q: Given that the biggest issue in the spread of this disease is a lack of education and a distrust of foreign doctors - what future steps could be taken to prevent such an outbreak from reoccurring (especially considering the lacking educational infrastructure)?

A: Hopefully this current outbreak has increased global awareness about the disease. It's hard to say how it could be stopped in the future.

Q: How have the locals been reacting to the foreign aid?

A: It's hard to say for everyone, but people are very appreciative of the help. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders are tremendously tough and hard working. They stay up day and night to treat patients and track the spread. Most people appreciate that.

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