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Medill students report on the threat of global infectious disease

Even as a perfect storm of conditions created the potential for a catastrophic global pandemic over the past decade, the U.S. government allowed gaping holes in an early warning system designed to respond to infectious disease outbreaks before they could kill many tens of thousands of people, according to a new special report being published by the Medill National Security Reporting Project in conjunction with VICE News.

The centerpiece of that system, known as the Global Disease Detection program, was supposed to be 18 regional health surveillance centers that the U.S. government would build in disease hotspots around the world. But more than a decade later, only 10 have been built, none of them in vast swaths of Africa and South America where U.S. health officials have long warned that new and increasingly deadly infectious viruses could emerge.

U.S. officials now concede that if they had built a center in West Africa as some health officials had urged, the deadly Ebola outbreak of 2014 might have been stopped, or certainly contained before more than 11,300 people were killed. “It’s a question I ask myself; if we had a GDD center there, if we had active surveillance, could we have picked up Ebola earlier? And I think you’d had to have your head buried in the sand to say no,” Dr. Joel Montgomery, a top Centers for Disease Control official, told Medill. “Of course we would have picked it up earlier.”

Those are some of the findings of an investigation by students from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. A team of seven graduate students spent three months reporting on global infectious disease, deploying throughout Washington, D.C. and to CDC headquarters in Atlanta. They also reported on the re-emergence of polio from the urban sprawl of Karachi, Pakistan and on how researchers are analyzing the bats of Tao Pun, Thailand for clues as to where the next killer zoonotic virus will jump from animals to humans and spread around the world.

The project, titled “The Perfect Storm,” is being published beginning today by VICE News, a U.S.-based media organization with a global reach across all digital platforms. It is also being published on a special Medill website created by the reporting team, complete with even more videos and multimedia/interactive components. The findings are based on interviews with many dozens of experts, health and government officials and a Medill analysis of dozens of reports and studies.

“This project is accountability-driven, public service journalism of the highest order, and we’re grateful to VICE News for being so supportive of our work, and for publishing our findings to a worldwide audience,” said Josh Meyer, project leader and director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative. “The students have performed a huge public service by shining a bright light on this important and timely topic.”

 The Medill initiative, as well as the student scholarships for the Washington-based project, are funded through a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

The student team was comprised of data/graphics/interactive producer Jin Wu, who designed the website, built the interactives and contributed reporting. The reporters, across all digital platforms, on the project were Dawnn Anderson, Adriana Cargill, Ezra Kaplan, Nicole McGee, Aditya Prakash and Lydia Sommerville Randall.

They were assisted by Meyer and four award-winning professional journalists who served as adjunct professors: Tyler Fisher of National Public Radio (and a recent Medill grad), Erin Harper, recently of the Chicago Tribune, Steven Rich of The Washington Post and independent photographer/videographer Allison Shelley.

"Emerging disease pandemics are a growing global threat,” said VICE News managing editor Alberto Riva. “These important stories remind us that a worldwide public health crisis is always around the corner, and that global health issues intersect with many social, economic and political factors."

“Perfect Storm” is the sixth in a series of annual investigative reporting efforts that are part of Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative. The initiative was established in January 2009 to equip journalists with the knowledge and skills necessary to report accurately and innovatively on issues related to defense, security and civil liberties and to do so across all digital platforms.

Previous projects have focused on “Deadly Debris: The U.S. Legacy of Unexploded Remnants of War,” the troubled U.S. global food aid program, the national security implications of U.S. energy policy and the challenges faced by National Guard and Reserve members returning home from a decade of war. The first project, on the national security implications of climate change, won a national award from the Online News Association.

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