A Funder Steps Out of Its Comfort Zone to Curb Cholera in Haiti

It’s estimated that the Haitian cholera outbreak began in late 2010, resulting in over 700,000 estimated cases and around 8,600 deaths to date. In November of 2014, the UN coordinator for cholera response in Haiti, Pedro Medrano Rojas, called out the international global health community—in particular, the European Union—stating that the international donor community needs to "do better," and if cholera response support remains at its current levels, it would take over 40 years to eliminate the disease. That puts a bit of a wrench in the joint UN Secretary-General, Bank Ki-Moon and Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe’s 10-Year National Plan for the Elimination in of Cholera in Haiti.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation isn’t really an infectious and enteric diseases funder, and generally sticks to U.S. health issues. But that didn’t stop RWJF from giving Massachusetts General a $420,000 grant to support a T-cell immune response study in Haiti. The research will focus on T-cell immune responses as they relate the oral cholera vaccine Shanchol. Incidentally, Shanchol was developed by the International Vaccine Institute, which received major funding from the Gates Foundation to help bring the vaccine to market.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation doesn’t have a long history of funding Haiti-based projects. Nearly all of its past grants to the island nation were awarded to support the recovery efforts after the devastating 2010 earthquake. One such grant included $250,000 the New Jersey-based Jefferson Park Ministries, to help Haitian earthquake evacuees adjust emotionally and socially to the disaster. This grant, along with its recent $420,000 cholera grant to Mass Gen, demonstrates two things about RWJFs giving: (1) it isn’t afraid to step outside its clearly defined funding lines on occasion; and (2) it tends to so if there is some sort of connection with its major funding priorities.

To demonstrate, that $250,000 grant to Jefferson Park Ministries lines up with the RWJF's mental and emotional health giving and the grant to Mass Gen ties in with the foundation’s emergency preparedness and response efforts (for which the Haitian cholera outbreak qualifies). These grants aren’t necessarily one-offs at RWJF, but they are a bit out of the ordinary. As I said, the vast majority of the foundation’s grants remain stateside, focusing on improving health and health care systems.