Financing battles against Third World diseases is a primary mission of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given away $30 billion since 1997. But its focus has been on ones that kill millions – like malaria.
On Wednesday the Gates foundation announced its biggest donation to date for a health emergency – $50 million – to fight Ebola, which has killed about 2,300 people so far in West Africa. That’s on top of $10 million the foundation had already given, and it’s an indication of just how scary the current outbreak really is.
The World Health Organization has said the virus could claim 20,000 lives – and that’s even if efforts are stepped up to combat it. New cases are increasing “exponentially,” the WHO says.
Put in perspective with diseases that kill millions each year, Ebola seems like less of a threat. But what’s different about it is its deadliness; it can kill 90 percent of those infected. And then there’s the threat that, given modern mobility, the disease could spread to other parts of the world and mutate in a way that makes it easier to transmit.
The United States, with its higher level of health care, would be in a better position to handle Ebola cases than the poor countries now stricken. But a new report by the federal Office of the Inspector General says the nation is ill-equipped to handle any kind of deadly pandemic, be it bird flu or Ebola. Stockpiles of antiviral medication, respirators and even hand sanitizer are either past their expiration date or about to be.
The audit also criticizes the Department of Homeland Security for failing to determine the real-life needs of fighting a pandemic before making many of its purchases as well as poor record-keeping and inventory control.
But the immediate concern is the African Ebola crisis. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the window for containing the outbreak is closing, and the United Nations estimates it will cost $600 million to stop it. The Gates money will go a long way toward helping, but clearly much more is needed. The generous size of this contribution should inspire other private donors and governments that have not signed on. The U.S. has spent about $100 million since the outbreak began, and Tuesday announced an additional $10 million.
Addressing Ebola is a lot like dealing with terrorists; we can fight it there, or we can fight it here. It’s in the world’s best interest to wipe out Ebola where it is while working on new treatments and vaccines to prevent future outbreaks.