As the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history continues to rage
in West Africa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has stepped in to
give $50 million in emergency funds. That’s the most money the foundation
has ever donated in response to a health emergency, illustrating the severity
of an outbreak that Oxford researchers say could emerge in 22
countries across Africa.
It’s also a rare move for the Microsoft founder
who, with his wife, is trying to eradicate diseases that kill millions each
year, like malaria. While the Ebola virus produces frightening symptoms and
headlines, the death toll from the current epidemic is now hovering at around
2,300, according to the World Health Organization. What makes Ebola so
frightening is the fact that there are no easy fixes: no vaccine, no cure, and
no easy way to contain it—the disease might also be transmitted by bats and
The mysterious nature of Ebola, combined with a painful and
often fatal outcome, has unnerved health authorities worldwide. Officials from
the WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Doctors Without
Borders all describe a global threat that calls for a massive global response.
That hasn’t happened yet, in part because its toll up to now has usually
numbered in the hundreds, not thousands.
Along with much-needed money and attention, the Gates
Foundation could be the catalyst for a broader global effort. As a major player
in the health-care sector, it has relationships and access that even United
Nations officials might not get. Its focus on long-term initiatives that deal
with critical issues also underscores the urgency of the situation. If Bill
Gates is willing to break with tradition to put emergency funds into this
exotic disease, maybe others will, too.
That’s important, but so is this: The Gates pledge
illustrates the complicated reality of modern-day philanthropy. While the world
needs private money to fund ambitious long-term initiatives, it also needs that
money to be more flexible as the needs become less predictable. Governments may
still be the first line of defense when an epidemic or disaster takes place,
but they’re rarely enough. They need the support of groups like the Gates
Foundation, which is targeting its grant money toward research into new
therapies and diagnostic tests, as well as for emergency supplies and medical
care. Whether that’s enough to stop this crisis or avert the next one might not
be known for years.
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