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'Committed': NBC News Freelancer Returned to Liberia Despite Ebola Risk

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Journalist Ashoka Mukpo knew the dangers of returning to Liberia, but friends say the chance to spotlight its struggles was worth the risk.

Mukpo, 33, became the fifth American diagnosed with Ebola, it was announced Thursday, after he begun working as a freelance cameraman for NBC News this week. The revelation has left his family and friends reeling — knowing how he was willing to be in the epicenter of an illness that has killed more than 3,000 people in West Africa.

Mukpo’s father, Dr. Mitchell Levy, told the TODAY show on Friday that his son is “scared and worried ... but his spirits are better today.” Mukpo is showing mild symptoms of the virus, and will be flown back Sunday to the United States for treatment at The Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, the hospital confirmed. It’s unclear exactly how he contracted the deadly disease, but he had been writing freelance stories from the front lines of the outbreak.

In a Facebook post on Sept. 5, Mukpo wrote that he was back in Liberia and being careful: “I am taking serious precautions and washing with chlorine regularly. The virus only passes through open cuts and membranes like eyes and mouth so with gloves, chlorine washes, and care to not touch anyone there’s a low risk of transmission.”

Mukpo is a devout, converted Buddhist from Rhode Island, and has a passion for Liberian culture, friends say. Philip Marcelo, a Boston-based Associated Press reporter, met him last year while on assignment in Liberia for The Providence Journal. Marcelo says Mukpo was a researcher for the Sustainable Development Institute, a Liberia-based nonprofit shining light on concerns of workers in mining camps outside Monrovia.

Mukpo had also spent two months in 2011 working with a Non-Governmental Organization in Liberia providing AIDS prevention services, said friend Adam Hutton. The two were also roommates in Brooklyn, N.Y., while Mukpo was in graduate school at Columbia University studying international and public affairs. “He cares very deeply about injustice in the world, he saw a lot of that in Liberia," Hutton told NBC News. "I think he was motivated to do something about it.”

Chad Bilyeu, a friend and former classmate, told NBC affiliate NECN about their shared passion for hip-hop and Mukpo’s desire to help people. Bilyeu met Mukpo at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “I just always knew him as a very thoughtful, caring person," Bilyeu said. “I saw that the studies, and his interest in Africa, was very altruistic.”

Friends and family are hopeful that Mukpo will improve once he’s back in the United States. Other Americans who have fallen ill in West Africa and treated here have fully recovered, and friends say Mukpo is a fighter. “As a journalist, Ashoka has worked as a freelancer, which is a tremendous grind under the best circumstances,” Hutton said, adding, “The man contracted a deadly disease in service of a story, I’d say he’s committed.”

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— Erik Ortiz

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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