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Book by Assistant Professor Lara Salahi Sheds Light on Culture of Outbreak Response

Lara Salahi working at her computer.
Award-winning genetic researcher teams with tenacious award-winning journalist, and Outbreak Culture—a narrative that examines the behaviors during infectious disease outbreaks—is born.
10/24/2018

For Assistant Professor of Broadcast and Digital Journalism Lara Salahi, putting theory into practice is what teaching is all about.

A broadcast journalist herself, she’s worked at nearly every television network in Boston and as a regional field producer and reporter for national ABC News shows including Good Morning America and World News with David Muir. She was also part of the newsroom at the Boston Globe and its news site Boston.com which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings.

“The principles of journalism are about accountability, transparency, truth-telling, truth-seeking, and the reason why it’s created is for the people,” Salahi shares. She explains that the responsibilities of journalists everywhere are “to hold people in power accountable and serve the public by conveying information as accurately as possible.”

She continues, “Part of our job is taking complex information, digesting it, and communicating it in a way that’s palpable and makes people feel a part of their community.”

She brings this expertise into the classroom and shapes her courses as closely to industry standards as possible. She gives students assignments she’d receive from an editor herself and is a stickler for deadlines, because that’s the way the industry operates.

“I cannot overstate the value of Endicott’s culture of experiential learning,” Salahi says. “I deeply appreciate and am deeply invested in this philosophy.”

She most recently applied her multimedia journalism skills to writing her first book, Outbreak Culture: The Ebola Crisis and the Next Epidemic, which she coauthored with Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard University, Pardis Sabeti.

Outbreak Culture

Diagnostic labs at Kenema Government HospitalSalahi’s book is a work of narrative nonfiction and tells the story of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa while also speaking more broadly about the culture that emerges during an infectious disease outbreak response. Salahi and Sabeti shed light on how the Ebola response mirrored the types of responses we see in other infectious diseases including AIDS, SARS, and Influenza.

The book began as a project. Salahi was covering the Ebola outbreak at the time when a colleague introduced her to Sabeti who had a lab set up in Sierra Leone prior to the outbreak. “She shared her experiences with me, and I knew I had to investigate further,” Salahi says.

Salahi was compelled by Sabeti’s experience in the town of Kenema in Sierra Leone during the outbreak and the relationship she had with a prominent physician, Dr. Sheikh Humarr Khan. Khan died of Ebola—the type of disease he spent his life trying to save others from. “I thought, there is a larger story here,” says Salahi.

The pair ran a study which determined that many of the experiences Sabeti’s lab encountered—the politics, the indecision, the slow response times, the difficulty coordinating with multiple responding international agencies—was indicative of a larger culture surrounding infectious disease outbreaks. Their findings are published within the book.

Salahi says Ebola is the entry point in the book to defining a larger scale phenomenon they term “outbreak culture.” She says, “The book is not solely about the virus itself. There are pages in one chapter that describe what Ebola is. Everything else has to do with what happens around us, the way we respond to very intense pressures and situations, the human behavior aspect of what happens. The external factors are what fascinate me.”

Why this story & why now?

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the influenza pandemic—known to be the most severe pandemic in recent history. Salahi says, “There are signs pointing to the likelihood of another major pandemic within the next decade, and certainly within the next century. We just don’t know what the virus will be.”

She shares that the final chapter of the book outlines some guiding principles for what we need to be doing now to prepare for the next epidemic. “This is beyond Ebola. The problems that we are facing, many of which are manmade, can and must be solved before the next epidemic.”

Salahi is already beginning research for what she hopes will be her next major reporting project covering another large-scale epidemic.

Outbreak Culture: The Ebola Crisis and the Next Epidemic will publish in November and currently available for pre-order at all major booksellers including Amazon and through its publisher Harvard University Press.

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