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 chimpanzees.
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.