A Look at the ALS and Ebola Responses

By Deborah Cho

I’m a little late to this discussion, but I want to talk briefly about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and how we make our decisions on charitable giving.

I’m sure by now most readers understand the basic concept of the challenge: individuals can choose to either record a video of themselves pouring ice water over their heads or to donate money to the ALS Association (or both — the rules don’t seem to be particularly consistent in application).   After the challenge is undertaken, the video is shared on social media or a message is posted announcing that the individual has donated, and then the individual “nominates” others for the challenge.

This challenge has virtually taken over the web in the past couple weeks (perhaps, as one writer commented, because it lets participants “(a) exhibit his altruism publicly and (b) show off how good he looks soaking wet.”), raising over 88 million dollars as of August 26, 2014.  As expected, however, the challenge was not without its very vocal critics.  Many were opposed to the narcissistic nature of the challenge, while others, more relevantly, questioned donating so much money to a charity and to fight a disease based on an internet fad.

While recognizing the good that has been accomplished with the ice bucket challenge, one article notes that between 5,000 and 6,000 people in the U.S. die from ALS every year, compared to almost 600,000 deaths from heart disease each year.  Despite those statistics, the amount of charitable donations given to an American Heart Association fundraising campaign in 2013 was less than that received to date by the ALS ice bucket challenge.  But perhaps that was because heart disease seemed too unmanageable a disease to warrant donations.  So let’s look at an extremely preventable and curable disease: malaria.

According to the CDC Foundation, more than 627,000 people die of malaria each year and just $5 helps purchase a bed net that will protect up to 3 children from malaria.  To put this into perspective, the previously mentioned article states that the cost to provide one quality-adjusted life year to an individual with ALS could provide 500 quality-adjusted life years if that money were given to bed nets to preventing malaria.  Though bare statistics, and even more so quality-adjusted life years, should not simply be taken at face value, it is fairly clear that the money donated to the ice bucket challenge could probably save more lives if it were sent elsewhere.

I recognize, like many others, that this is not a zero-sum game.  Many (or, possibly, most) who have donated to the ALS ice bucket challenge would not have donated to any cause if not for the challenge.  But for those who were itching to find a worthy cause to give their hard-earned money to, I question donating to the ALS challenge and, even further, if there is a duty to give elsewhere.

A large part of the success of the challenge was its large presence on social media and its timing.  There has, however, been another deadly disease ever present on social media this summer that has prompted quite the opposite response.  Over 2,600 people in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria have been infected with Ebola in the recent months, with more than half of those infections resulting in death.  Not only has social media noticeably lacked any mention of charitable giving to the Ebola response, but it was also filled with fear and even anger when U.S. citizens infected with Ebola were flown back into the country for treatment.

As Ebola is both preventable and contagious (causing many in the U.S. to express fear for their lives), one would logically expect charitable giving to the response to be greater than that for ALS.  The fact that it is not is concerning.

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