The World Health Organization is receiving an infusion of private money to help it combat outbreaks of deadly diseases around the world. The organization and its benefactor hope the donation will stimulate governments to add to the fund.
A U.S. group called the Nuclear Threat Initiative is giving the World Health Organization $500,000 to strengthen the WHO's ability to respond quickly to infectious disease outbreaks, whether natural or the result of bioterrorism.
WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland told Washington reporters that the money establishes a new rapid response fund to let her organization provide immediate medical expertise and equipment at the site of an outbreak.
"Almost every month somewhere around the world, a deadly disease strikes a community," she said. "The speed with which these outbreaks are detected and contained makes the difference between a few dead and perhaps hundreds or thousands."
The contributor to the new WHO fund, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, is a charitable group founded by former Senator Sam Nunn and businessman Ted Turner to reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Since its establishment nearly two years ago, it has spent almost $37 million on projects such as helping make Russian and Yugoslav nuclear material more secure.
Mr. Nunn says its contribution to the World Health Organization is based on the premise that the link between national security and health is increasingly clear, following last year's terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax scare in the United States.
"There are two lessons we need to learn, and we need to learn them fast," Senator Nunn said. "First, infectious disease anywhere threatens public health everywhere, and second, a threat to public health can be a threat to our nation's security."
Until the new disease outbreak fund was established, the World Health Organization had no reserve money to respond to global health emergencies. Mobilizing medical expertise and supplies required pledges of support from humanitarian donors, using up critical early response time.
The WHO spends from a few million dollars to $10 million a year investigating outbreaks. Therefore, Mr. Nunn says he hopes the Nuclear Threat Initiative's $500,000 grant will stimulate giving by the United States and other donors.
"We would like for a perfect world to exist where the governments adequately funded all the international organizations," he said. "We know that does not happen. We are trying to get the ball rolling in a lot of different directions, including this one here today, which we believe is very important."
WHO Director General Brundtland calls the Nuclear Threat Initiative contribution a good start and says she hopes other donors replenish it regularly.