ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Is Fun, But Donations Should Be Going Toward Diseases That Kill Us

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 23: Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams and Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Williams pour ice water over Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams in the paddock as she takes part in an ice bucket challenge after qualifying ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 23, 2014 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Source: Clive Mason/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The ALS Association has received $94.3 million in donations since July 29 — the day the foundation kicked off its now-viral ice bucket challenge. Raising funds for a rare yet brutal illness isn't bad, but an infographic recently created by Vox should give us all a pause: The disease that overwhelmingly kills the most Americans each year is heart disease, yet the Jump Rope for Heart fund-raising campaign raises just $54 million in a year. Why don't we donate to the diseases that actually kill us, and not to ones popularized by Internet memes?

ALS is a rare disease, affecting an estimated 30,000 Americans at any given time and killing between 5,000 and 6,000 Americans each year, according to the ALS Association. Okay, that might not sound rare to you, but when you place those numbers up against the annual death rates of heart disease, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and diabetes, there's just no comparison.

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vox took a look at the medical-based charities that have received the most donations from fund-raisers versus the diseases with the highest number of deaths. It's morbid, yes, but eye-opening. Heart disease, which kills nearly 600,000 Americans per year but received $54 million in donations from Jump Rope for Heart. Meanwhile, COPD kills the second-most Americans — roughly 143,000 — but the Fight for Air Climb received just $7 million in donations. Diabetes kills the third-most Americans, yet the Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes reaped only $4.2 million. 

Which medical campaign raised the most funds? It's not the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (yet), but the Susan Komen Race for the Cure, which took in nearly $256 million for breast cancer in 2012. Susan G. Komen, you might remember, has also come under fire in recent years for spending too much of its contributions on pink ribbon merchandise than breast cancer research and treatment.

According to Vox, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is now the fourth-highest fund-raising campaign for an illness. Prostate cancer, which kills about 21,000 Americans annually, comes in at second with $147 million from Movember — the mustache month. Heart disease is third. 

So how can we explain for these glaring discrepancies. Marketing may have something to do with it; there's no doubt that the ice bucket challenge or growing a mustache during "Movember" are catchy — and eye-catching. 

However, I suspect there's more at play here than just viral sensations and attractive branding. The diseases that kill the most Americans, heart disease and COPD, are the types of conditions many people assume stem from "unhealthy lifestyles" such as smoking or a poor diet. My father has COPD, a disease for which there is currently no cure, and I can tell you that not many people are sympathetic to him or former smokers in general. On the other hand, diseases such as cancer and ALS seem more arbitrary — they can strike anyone at any time. 

In some ways, maybe that is attractive branding: knowing how to sell a disease so Americans on the Internet feel empathetic enough to donate. Is the trick, then, to make heart disease "donatable" like ALS? 

Images: Getty Images (2)

Must Reads