As Ebola Winds Down, Disease Surveillance Ramps Up

As Liberia cautiously announced that it has been six weeks since the country’s last known case of Ebola, neighboring countries continue to combat the disease, though on a considerably smaller scale from its recent epidemic proportions. As the Ebola fight comes to a close, a number of funders, as well as official agencies and major NGOs, are taking the lessons be learned from the epidemic that led to over 11,000 deaths—like how to better prepare for the next epidemic.

No one is saying that the next outbreak is going to be Ebola or someting else. But what is certain is that there will be another epidemic. Some funders, like Paul Allen, want to prepare for that day by shoring up West Africa's abysmally weak public health systems and bolstering the capacity to respond to future health emergencies. 

Related: Mission Accomplished on Ebola? Not Yet. Paul Allen Is Sticking Around West Africa

The Gates Foundation also wants to better prepare for whatever is coming next, which is the main reason for its $75 million grant to the Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance Network, or CHAMPS. Another big reason, though, is that the work of CHAMPS can save the lives of children now

CHAMPS is a disease surveillance network with sites in developing countries that are gathering data to help determine why, where and when children are becoming ill and dying. The focus on children here is a no-brainer—they are among the most vulnerable when it comes to fighting off diseases. By gathering this data more quickly, resources can get to where they need to be faster, and hopefully, save more lives. The program will also provide capacity and training in the event another outbreak shifts to an epidemic.

The Emory Global Health Institute, which is home to the International Association of National Public Health Institutes and the CDC, will offer up technical assistance with lab infrastructure for the program, which is currently set to run for a minimum of 20 years.

Historically, the Gates Foundation’s disease-related grantmaking has targeted the prevention and treatment of specific diseases like HIV, polio, and malaria. Its support related to disease surveillance has also gone in the same direction, targeting specific diseases rather than casting a wider net, as it’s now doing with CHAMPS. Not only has the foundation stepped a bit out of its funding comfort zone here, it’s also raised its financial commitment rather significantly.

Though disease surveillance isn’t a marquee grantmaking program at Gates, it has always been on the foundation’s radar. Beginning in 1999, Gates awarded the International Medical Corps a $720,000 grant to support its sleeping sickness surveillance and control work in Sudan. Every couple of years, the foundation would award one or two disease surveillance grants to organizations like the WHO and the CDC.

It wasn’t until 2013 when a discernable pattern in Gates’ disease surveillance grantmaking began to emerge. That year, the foundation made close to $26 million in related grants. In 2014, those amounts remained relatively the same, as did the number of grantees (around 10 per year).

The foundation’s five-year, $75 million grant also marks another notable change in Gates’ disease surveillance grantmaking—it’s three times as big as any related grant it has awarded in the past.

As for other funders in the disease surveillance space, we've written often about how the Rockefeller Foundation is a major player here. And while it officially winded down that work a while back, it isn't completely out of the game, still making select grants for disease surveillance here and there.