While aid organizations need funds to fight the worst-ever Ebola outbreak in West Africa, officials say a lack of interest has made it difficult to highlight the need for more money and medical supplies.
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Since March, the virus has killed 1,427 people and infected 2,615. The World Health Organization said Friday that there is not enough staff, supplies and equipment to keep up with the flood of patients.
“We’ve raised a tenth of donations we received following the typhoon in the Philippines,” said Kevin Allan, the senior vice president at the U.S. relief organization AmeriCares, which provided medical and humanitarian aid after that 2013 disaster. “More resources are needed to do our work.”
One reason for the tepid philanthropic response to the Ebola outbreak is that large aid agencies like the American Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have decided against creating dedicated donation pages for their Ebola responses, partly due to a lack of interest from people outside Africa.
“You see a lot of donor interest when you see something that is very visual,” said Jana Sweeney, spokesperson for the American Red Cross.
Sweeney said that when people see a disaster happen slowly over time — especially a disease outbreak - they’re usually less likely to open up their wallets.
“A disease that has been confined to Africa doesn’t [affect] people in the U.S. as much,” she said.
Although Ebola is not currently in the U.S., one in four Americans is afraid the outbreak could arrive in the country next year, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study.
Photos of the outbreak zone haven't led to a call to donate, a far cry from the "ice bucket challenge" helping battle another deadly disease, ALS, that's currently filling social media. Everyone from Justin Bieber to Tom Hanks has taken on the viral challenge to raise awareness and money to treat ALS.
Another reason for the lukewarm response to the Ebola outbreak is that people in western countries like the U.S. may not realize local governments lack the medical infrastructure to fight the virus, according to Sweeney.
“I think for Americans [with] health issues, they would think of this as being handled by a ministry of health or a government,” said Sweeney.
Sweeney said the American Red Cross creates targeted fundraising pages when there's enough interest in a particular cause. For now, people wishing to donate to the organization's response to the Ebola outbreak can download a form that allows them to specify where they want their donation to go.
Another of the biggest international relief agencies on the ground in West Africa, Doctors Without Borders, is not accepting donations solely earmarked to Ebola relief because it could hurt their ability to respond to other disasters.
Sophie Delaunay, executive director of Doctors Without Borders (also known by its French initials MSF), said earmarked donations can slow down their disaster response as they have to wait for specific funds to come in rather than drawing from a larger pool.
“We want to be able to have sufficient cash flow to respond to an emergency right away and not wait to have earmarked funding to come,” said Delauney.
Delauney said part of the problem with the Ebola outbreak is that money isn't enough. It is a complex problem spanning multiple countries and governments. While the MSF have 1,000 people on the ground, they’re working on finding more people and supplies to treat the patients that are now overwhelming existing treatment centers.
“As soon as we expand our activity we need to be able to ensure the appropriate level for human resources there,” said Delauney. “I’m not worried about financial resources, I think we will get the support financially. From a human point of view, it’s more complex.”
Not all organizations have shied away from raising funds for Ebola. The University of California San Francisco is working to raise $100,000 for medical supplies to be sent to a clinic in Sierra Leone that was started by a UCSF professor.
An anonymous donor has agreed to match all donations more than $250 and up to $50,000.
In addition, AmeriCares, the U.S. based non-profit emergency response and global health organization that distributed medical and humanitarian aid, is accepting donations pegged specifically to helping treat Ebola patients.
Donations to Doctors Without Borders can be made here.
Donations to the American Red Cross can be made here.