When Simone Del Rosario covered her first health story in India, she only had one day to prepare.
“I had been researching the idea and my boss turned to me and said, ‘If you can make something happen with this story, we’ll go,’” said Del Rosario, who worked in New Delhi for Russia Today television, an English-language news channel based in Moscow. “That was on Monday. We left at 4 a.m. the next day.”
Del Rosario and her producer were chasing a story about scientists at Bharat Biotech in Hyderabad, India, who were developing a $1 dollar vaccine for rotavirus, which causes diarrhea, vomiting and fever in infants and young children, and sometimes leads to death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In her video package, Del Rosario explained that the virus could “save the lives of 100,000 Indian children every year.” While in the United States, only 20 to 60 children’s deaths were caused by the rotavirus this year, according to the CDC.
“It’s something that here in the United States, we never have to worry about, but it’s such a huge problem in the developing world,” she said. “They were trying to come up with an economical solution so that they could really go out and reach the people who need the vaccine, but who can’t afford it.”
Del Rosario was connected to her station in India through the global residency program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications, which she participated in during the fall of 2012. Since the mid-1990’s, Medill has sent hundreds of students across the globe to newspapers and broadcasting outlets to cover global events.
“Students have a global experience and can understand different cultures journalistically,” said Professor Bill Handy, who has coordinated the global residency program since 2007. “Part of it is living abroad, but not living as a student, but as a working journalist.”
Students are scattered across the map—some working for major international organizations, including the BBC, Time magazine and the Associate Press. While other students work for smaller, indigenous publications, such as The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, or K24 TV in Nairobi, Kenya.
“They get a real sense what it’s like to operate in a major newspaper by sitting next to some of the best people in the business and seeing how successful people go about their business,” Handy said. “They get a huge amount of confidence that they can go to wherever and not only come back alive, but come back with a sense of their role in the world of journalism.”
Del Rosario, who graduated with a master’s degree in journalism in 2012, said she studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain, and Costa Rica, while working on her undergraduate degree at New Mexico State University, so Medill’s global program “was a huge draw for me.”
In India, Del Rosario also researched another health innovation developed by scientists in Bangalore—an affordable diagnostic tool for rural areas.
“It’s a piece of cloth…and with one drop of blood, you can diagnose all sorts of diseases,” she said. “With just a prick of the finger, you can find out if someone has HIV or has a specific infection.” She added that for rural clinics without many doctors, this tool could be life changing.
But it takes resources and dedication to cover these health stories since they are not well publicized.
“I probably called 12 different labs before deciding to focus on these two labs,” Del Rosario said. “It’s a matter of going out there, reading up on things, and then talking to people about it and understanding their mission. It wasn’t about breaking news or a press release. It’s about doing a lot of research.”
Time and resources are hard to come by for journalists covering health abroad, said Kristen Ashburn, a freelance photographer and journalist who started reporting on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa in 2001. Ashburn’s portrait photo series, “Bloodline: AIDS and Family,” unites images and video footage of African families describing their experiences living with the disease. It was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2007.
“It’s very long hours. It’s a very long days. You’re often by yourself and putting yourself at risk,” Ashburn said. “It’s also hard to get placement for your stories and to find an audience. It’s not usually a lucrative type of story.”
For Ashburn, covering health in another country requires passion. “Each story is going to have its own complexities and difficulties, but it all starts from a passion, usually one to help people.”
Del Rosario found both passion and confidence in her health reporting. “I know now I can tackle topics that require more research,” said Del Rosario, who now works as a reporter for KGUN 9 in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s knowing that I can easily handle going over to a university and discussing some new innovative thing that they’re doing over there.”
Although reporting on global health presents challenges, Ashburn said it is essential to international journalism as a whole. “Global health is everything,” she said. “Everything can boil down to health.”