2023 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom winner

Roots of an Outbreak

About the Project

When we decided to investigate how viruses spill over from animals to humans, we tackled the problem the only way we at ProPublica know how: through extensive review of the scientific literature, unprecedented data analysis and development of an eye-catching interactive to draw readers in. It’s one thing to read a dry academic paper that says that deforestation is linked to outbreaks; it’s another thing entirely to see it for yourself. Over the course of nine months, we consulted with a dozen researchers, including biologists, ecologists and mathematicians, to adapt a theoretical epidemiological model for Ebola, and applied it to historic satellite imagery data from seven locations where the virus has previously spilled over from animals to humans.

What we found was 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.

As a companion piece, we also created an interactive page that guided readers through the science, allowing them to cut down an imaginary forest and see how creating more and more patches increases the opportunities for humans and wildlife to mix.

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.”

We found that global health leaders 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.

Raina Plowright, a professor of disease ecology at Cornell University and senior author of the model we adapted, said of our findings: “I think this is very powerful. …Though we know the fundamental driver of these outbreaks, we have effectively done nothing to stop the ignition of a future outbreak.”

Judges Comments

An ambitious and illuminating project, judges noted its elegant design and interactivity which easily explained a complex problem.