The first case of Ebola has been diagnosed in the U.S. While this was anticipated and experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, assure us it will not lead to an outbreak here, it is concerning. The Ebola virus has taken the lives of more than 3,000 people in West Africa and the death toll continues to mount, breaking apart families and raising fears throughout the world of a devastating epidemic. Despite attempts to contain the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now predicting between 550,000 and 1.4 million cases by early 2015. And that’s just in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
As the projections become ever more alarming, there is a growing sense that we are not well-equipped to combat Ebola. Yet the promise of medical treatment is closer than you may think. Many of America’s greatest scientific minds are leading one of the most urgent biological struggles we presently face, battling the Ebola virus in medical research labs across the country.
Even as the lack of profitability — necessary to secure capital — left most private manufacturers unable to research and develop an Ebola vaccine, the National Institutes of Health invested millions into fighting the largely fatal disease. In fact, the NIH has developed a vaccine , now in human trials, that may be the key to curbing the outbreak. In recent C-SPAN interview, NIH Director Francis Collins said weak NIH budgets had cost precious time. “This is one of those consequences of the stress that we’ve been under that we are not in a position right now to already have this vaccine ready to distribute,” Collins said.
Medical research plays an absolutely vital role in the lives of millions of Americans and billions more across the globe, even if we don’t often realize it. This summer, for instance, medical research came into the public eye as thousands of gallons of water were poured on people’s heads during the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised more than $110 million to help cure Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Despite the incredible effort, there is another story buried beneath the hashtags and YouTube videos. Funding for medical research in our country has been stagnant and even cut over the past decade, holding back the NIH — America’s primary source for life-changing medical research — from finding cures.
Each year, the NIH invests more than $30 billion in medical research for the American people. Eighty percent of the federal organization’s budget is dedicated to competitive research grants for universities, medical schools and other research institutions in each state. An additional 10 percent of its budget supports projects conducted by the NIH’s own world-renowned researchers.
The immediate impact of this funding gap is the loss of hundreds of promising proposals for research not only for ALS, but also for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and the Ebola virus. But the NIH’s impact extends far beyond dollars and cents. The results of the NIH research are deeply personal to us all, translating to days, years and lives of loved ones that medical research could prolong, and even save.
Medical research is America’s most powerful means of combatting global epidemics such as Ebola, keeping our shores safe. It is also the best way to find cures for diseases that touch each of us in the lives we lead here at home. Our nation’s elected representatives must take a stand for medical research now, and act for the NIH.
Mary Woolley is president and CEO of Research!America.