This morning, I was tagged in a Facebook post nominating me for the ALS ice bucket challenge.
But my pail will only contain a donation. And not for ALS.
Instead of dowsing myself with ice water and paying it forward, I'm going to take this opportunity to put ALS and the scale of the problem into perspective.
If I'm really lucky, I'll refocus your attention on the bigger picture of public health problems and encourage you to ruminate on global health priorities being distorted by popular media campaigns.
ALL HAIL THE ALS CAMPAIGN
First things first, I kowtow to the communications team behind the ice bucket challenge. They've achieved overnight rock star status by pulling off nothing short of a modern-day, social media-powered miracle (barring relatively few stray incidents of accidents and even one death due to people taking the ice bucket challenge).
Particularly commendable about this awareness and donation drive is the sustained attention it has drawn to a previously little-known condition. The genius of its design is using peer pressure to get wave after wave of people to engage with the campaign at all levels (first celebrities, then regular folk). The result: a snowballing movement that permanently features on our news feeds. One couldn't possibly have done better, especially on a limited budget.
The fundraising figures speak for themselves.
Latest reports show the ice bucket challenge has raised an amazing 88.5 million U.S. dollars within a month with donations from more than 1.9 million new donors.
"Just one week ago, donations totalled 22.6 million U.S. dollars. In just seven days, donations have sky-rocketed by an average of 9 million U.S. dollars per day," this ALS press release says.
In comparison, in the same period last year (July 29 to Aug 26), they raised 2.6 million U.S. dollars.
Never before has so much money been raised and public interest sparked so quickly for such a rare condition. Communication teams around the world will now be scratching their heads, wondering how to emulate their success.
Neither breast cancer's FB status campaign (remember "on the table, on the counter"?) nor the more recent no make-up selfies for cancer awareness seemed to have made such an impact. (As an aside, many in Britain might never have heard of the acronym ALS before because Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is better known as Motor Neuron Disease there).
FRINGE CONDITION, MASSIVE AWARENESS
The ALS Association estimates 30,000 people in the United States have ALS at any given time or two per 100,000 people.
Compare that to another non-contagious disease -- diabetes. According to the International Diabetes Federation's 2013 Atlas, 24.4 million people in the United States have diabetes, or one in every 10 people. How's that for perspective?
Given increasingly sedentary lifestyles, worsening diets and the ongoing economic lull, that figure will almost certainly jump to 29.7 million in one generation. And don't get me started on diabetes in China, India and the Middle East; or its effects on local communities and the economy.
Still, unless you are or a loved one is affected, I'm willing to bet more people today know of the ALS ice bucket challenge than they do World Diabetes Day. Or that the blue circle is the international symbol of diabetes (like HIV/Aids has the red ribbon).
It's certainly not a competition, but if you were wondering what the world's number one killer is, that dubious honour goes to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, cancer, heart and lung conditions. Together, they cause 60 percent -- or 35 million -- of global deaths annually, many of which are preventable with early intervention and the right resources.
But how many of you have heard of the NCD Alliance? Or their movement to include NCDs in the successor to the Millennium Development Goals post-2015?
A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Of course, none of this lack of awareness of the big picture is the ALS Association's doing. All they can be considered guilty of is devising an outrageously successful campaign.
While some argue that giving money to disease-specific charities is a bad idea -- like this article in the Slate -- I feel that's a personal choice. A bigger point is missed in the bargain.
If anything, the ALS Association and every one who participated in the ice bucket challenge should be lauded for breeding hope. They're proof that with a savvy campaign and lots of luck (and celebrities?), any worthy cause can inspire mass public activism, irrespective of the scale of the problem.
This is heartening. After all, all diseases -- well-known or rare -- are horrible; and cause immeasurable suffering to those affected and their loved ones.
So whether you're campaigning for lesser-known conditions such as Crohn's disease or relatively more mainstream ones such as HIV/Aids, social media and smart campaigning strategies have levelled the playing field.
CAN WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?
Ideally, all medical conditions -- big or small -- should be funded, researched and treated. A broad-based approach is needed to strengthen public health systems as a whole, instead of campaigners and governments working in silos and adopting a disease-centric approach alone.
However, the road to sustainable solutions for the world's numerous public health problems is a long and winding one.
It involves, among other things, major investments in better education, infrastructure, multi-disciplinary health teams and designing smart urban spaces that help incorporate physical activity into our daily lives.
But despite the threats it poses, public health investment rarely gets the attention it deserves with many governments instead prioritising boosting sluggish growth and controlling budget deficits.
We will never see a day when every cause is sufficiently funded, so continue to live in a world where health fundraisers vie for a piece of the same pie -- your donations. (Vox carried this thought-provoking piece on where we donate vs diseases that kill in the States.)
What I find unfair is some causes distorting funding priorities while other equally important ones -- certainly affecting a larger number of people -- lose out. Their crime? Not managing to create an awareness campaign that went viral.
Every one, like Andy Warhol said, can be world-famous for 15 minutes. But I do believe ALS, given its scale, has now enjoyed more than its fair share of the limelight.
Which is why I'm going to spread the love to other causes. And why you may want to consider doing the same.
Of course, that's easier said that done. Objectivity depends on the subject. Considerations such as the scale of the problem go out the window when someone you love is affected.
If, however, the ice bucket challenge is a sign of things to come, like an era of considered mass activism for worthy causes boosted by social media, I look forward to what the future holds.
(Full disclosure: I worked for the International Diabetes Federation as their multimedia specialist from June 2009 to Feb 2011.)