This is a guest blog by Jay LaMonica, a veteran journalist and television producer specializing in national security and foreign affairs. He recently left Discovery Channel where he produced documentaries with Ted Koppel and before that spent 15 years with ABC News Nightline reporting from every corner of the globe. He is the recipient of nine Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards.
In the late 1990s it became clear to even casual observers like myself that a catastrophe of epic proportions was occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. At the urging of public health professionals, many journalists like myself started to pay attention to the mushrooming AIDS crisis there. More than 20 million Africans seemed to be facing a death sentence with a disease that had no cure and little hope of treatment.
I reported on my discussions with field experts in Africa to Ted Koppel, the managing editor of ABC News Nightline, and he lent his full backing to a high-profile series of programs on the subject.
When I arrived in Zimbabwe in early 2000 with Nightline correspondent David Marash, and a South African camera crew, Craig Matthew and Ken Geraghty, we found a society imploding in slow motion. Nearly a third of the adult population was infected with HIV. The once-vibrant economy was crashing as a dazed population told us they had little time to work as they were attending so many funerals. Coffin-building was one of the few sectors thriving as key workers and technicians became ill and died. One specialist likened it to a neutron bomb that killed only the most productive members of society, in the prime of their life, leaving behind children and grandparents to raise them. The government seemed completely unable to address the problem and businesses were just beginning to awaken to the effects of the disease on productivity.
It was easy to trace the spread of the disease by following the country’s well-developed road network, unusual in Africa and the likely explanation for Zimbabwe’s record infection rate. The bawdy truck stops and casual promiscuity and prostitution found there made it easy to identify the pathways of infection from the highways into the countryside. The limited health care system was being overwhelmed and we met many inspiring individuals working on their own or with religious groups and international NGO’s to address the ravages of the disease. The series of broadcasts in March of 2000 culminated with a passionate appeal for assistance to African nations from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in an interview with Ted Koppel.
This experience was in many ways life-changing for me. It triggered an interest in Africa and global health issues that continues to this day. I was humbled but delighted to receive the Global Heath Council Excellence in Media award for this program because it seemed yet another way to draw attention to an issue that was just beginning to penetrate the consciousness of the American public and policy community.
I had never heard of the Global Health Council prior to receiving this award but have followed its work ever since. They have provided many leads and contacts in my professional career. After more than 25 years with ABC News and the Discovery Channel, I have recently tried to focus on global health issues with free-lance work at the PBS Newshour. During the last year, I have had the opportunity, with correspondent Jeffrey Kaye, to cover the response to the outbreaks of disease in the wake of the massive floods in Pakistan as well as the health care situation in southern Sudan. As always, these broadcasts are dependent on limited funding that must be carefully deployed.
Recent PBS NewsHour global health broadcasts: