2023 3M Truth in Science Award, Small/Medium Newsroom winner

Roots of an Outbreak

About the Project

The world is scarred by the COVID-19 pandemic, but what are we doing to prevent the next one? In this story, ProPublica exposed an often overlooked cause of outbreaks: deforestation. Cutting down trees to make way for farming or development brings people closer to wildlife and increases the chances that viruses will jump from animals to humans, an event scientists call spillover.

Our story blended immersive on-the-ground reporting and photography in West Africa with statistical modeling and an original analysis of satellite imagery to examine risky patterns of forest loss. Our findings were alarming: in five epicenters of past Ebola outbreaks, including the village where the worst Ebola outbreak originated, dangerous patterns of deforestation have increased in the years since the contagion broke out, raising their chances they’ll face the deadly virus again.

We traveled to Meliandou, Guinea, to show how this tiny village surrounded by forest is emblematic of the short-sighted global public health system. Meliandou is where a virus that once lived inside a bat found its way into the cells of a toddler, setting off the world’s worst Ebola outbreak. Health care workers clad head to toe in protective gear rushed to West Africa to treat the sick and extinguish the epidemic, an effort that took more than two years and cost at least $3.6 billion. Then, the foreign doctors packed up and the medical tents came down.

We wondered what the world had done to keep disaster from striking again. Reporting in Meliandou, we found that if Ebola were to emerge from the forest again, there’s little to stop the virus from ravaging this village and spreading beyond its borders once more. Residents there still rely on a clinic with no electricity or running water. Patients wash their hands in the same bucket. It’s staffed by a single midwife who has none of the head-to-toe PPE she’d need. “We are suffering,” village chief Jiba Masandouno told us. “The government has forgotten us. The international community has forgotten us.”

While scientific evidence piles up, we found that global health leaders aren’t acting on it. They prefer to focus on responding to epidemics already underway — fighting the fires once they have begun, as if we could not have predicted where they would start or prevented them from sparking.

Judges Comments

‘Roots of an Outbreak’ took users on a uniquely creative journey into a global issue we’ve all lived through. A story about both people and science, it offered an impressively personal depth of reporting and made complex concepts accessible to every reader.