Last week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed $50 million “to support the scale up of emergency efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak,” and Paul Allen has pledged $9 million.
On Tuesday, President Obama will travel to Atlanta, where he will visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has been overseeing the U.S. government’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but Gilbert Burnham, co-director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins University, gives a lot of credit to philanthropists like Gates and Allen.
“This is going to be the thing that turns the tide, the concern of individuals, rather than just the concern of government here,” he says.
The field of public health has changed, and, according to UNC medical anthropologist Peter Redfield, foundations and non-governmental organizations are more important than ever. “I think we now have a different set of expectations of what will happen in response to a kind of crisis or outbreak, and who will be the primary actors involved.”
Governments and the United Nations used to take the lead, but Dan Bausch, an expert on infectious diseases at Tulane University, says budgets took a hit after the financial crisis. “We probably would be on top of this more than we are if we hadn’t seen some dwindling of those funds in recent years.”
The Gates Foundation plays an outsize role in public health these days, but Rebecca Katz, a public health professor at George Washington University, says this pledge of support is kind of out of character. “They haven’t traditionally been engaged in disaster response,” she says. “But this outbreak is precedent-setting in all sorts of ways.”
Katz hopes some of that money will help with personnel. She says there are fewer than 250 doctors in all of Liberia.
“In Sierra Leone, you’re looking at a ratio of one physician for 30,000 people,” Katz says.
That is not nearly enough to combat an outbreak that- as she and other experts say – is still out of control.
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