Last month, the philanthropy world lost a hero as Paul G. Allen passed away from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While many know Allen from his work in personal computing, business and sports, it was his tireless philanthropic efforts to improve and save the lives of thousands that is often unheralded, but critical to public health constituencies.
Four years ago, Ebola dominated the headlines as the number of cases in West Africa rapidly grew and the fear of the deadly disease spreading to other parts of the world led to active monitoring and movement of travelers. Ebola is unfortunately again in the news, this time surfacing in a conflict area in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As we think about this current response, there is one lesson we learned in the last one I hope we don’t forget in our responses to both large-scale, persistent health challenges, such as cardiovascular disease, as well as emergency responses, like Ebola.
That lesson is how governments and the private sector must work in tandem. While government support from the United States and other nations was crucial to stem the tide of Ebola, government funding only became available months into the response. Until then, the gap was largely filled by philanthropic and private sector donors, including Allen. His relentless work, along with the contributions of many others, saved thousands of lives.
In total, Allen committed $100 million toward the Ebola research and response, including a $12.9 million contribution in 2014 to the CDC Foundation, which I lead. Allen’s early leadership and support helped advance the scientific expertise of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with the on-the-ground application by ministries of health to establish sustainable emergency operations centers in the most-impacted countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. During a public health emergency like Ebola, emergency operations centers provide a hub that brings all response functions together in one location.
Allen’s generous contribution also provided systems-strengthening infrastructure in support of the emergency operations centers during the Ebola outbreak. Examples included providing technical equipment for communications, software to accelerate contact tracing, staffing and training and much more. Critically, the emergency operations centers Allen funded continue to operate in each country, helping to prevent, detect and respond to health threats that safeguard both West Africa and the world.
Although I never met Allen in person, I mourn the loss of this extraordinary innovator and philanthropist. I also mourn his death on a personal level. My husband just completed chemotherapy treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He sent me the news about Allen and commented on the similarity in their cases. Spending time this summer at the oncology unit at Emory University Hospital for treatments every three weeks was not our original plan, but we are all subject to health threats — and we all can play a role in helping address these.
Whether you are a billionaire philanthropist, like Allen, a CEO running an international corporation, a small or mid-size regional philanthropy, or an individual donor, each of us has the power to join the battle against disease threats and health emergencies. We all have a chance to make an impact.
Paul Allen leaves behind a legacy of philanthropy, innovation and impact. His life reminds us of one important fact. That is, when the philanthropic, private and public sectors work together, we collectively have the means, science and reach to improve the public’s health and safety. We all have a responsibility to carry on Allen’s legacy — our global public health outcomes will be better for it.