Thu | Aug 16, 2018

The Brilliant Ice Bucket Challenge

Published:Monday | September 8, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Michael Abrahams, Online Columnist

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a terribly depressing, crippling degenerative neurological disease. It involves muscle spasticity and wasting, resulting in difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing. The average survival time from onset to death is three to four years with most victims dying from respiratory failure.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was inspired by Pete Frates. After being diagnosed with the disease in 2012 Frates embarked on a mission to lead a movement to fight ALS and change the world. The rules of the challenge are as follows. Within 24 hours of being challenged, participants are required to record a video of themselves announcing their challenger and their acceptance of the challenge, followed by them being doused with ice and water from a bucket. The participant then calls out a challenge to other people of their choice. Ideally, the person is required to donate US$10 to the ALS Association if they accept the challenge and US$100 if they do not. Celebrities from former U.S. president George W. Bush (who challenged Bill Clinton) to Justin Bieber have performed the challenge. Actor Matt Damon did it with toilet water to highlight the fact that 800 million people in the world do not have access to clean water.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has raised more than US$100 million in donations for the ALS Association this summer, compared with US$2.8 million for the comparable period in 2013, with more than 739,000 new donors giving money to the association.
According to The New York Times, more than 1.2 million videos of the challenge were posted on Facebook between June 1 and August 13 and the phenomenon was mentioned on Twitter more than 2.2 million times between July 29 and August 17. Justin Bieber's video alone, on Instagram, has more than one million "like"s. Also, hits to Wikipedia's page on the disease increased from an average of 8,000 hits a day to a peak of over 430,000 views on a single day (August 21).

The challenge has been a resounding success, not only raising money to help combat the disease, but also helping to increase public awareness. However, the activity has raised several criticisms, including remarks that it is self-congratulatory, that is focuses more on fun and frivolity than on donating money to charity, and that the wasting of water is unnecessary and insensitive as many persons worldwide are suffering from the effects of droughts and inaccessibility of clean water.
Animal rights activists object to the use of animal experimentation and members of the pro-life movement object to embryonic stem cells being used in ALS research and have rejected the challenge. One of the biggest criticisms is that the challenge "cannibalizes" money that could go to other charities for other diseases, like malaria, where the money would go much further and help more people. For example, malaria threatens the lives of tens of millions of people every year and the cost of an extra year of healthy life from distributing bed nets to tackle the disease has been estimated to be only US$100. On the other hand, it has been estimated that it costs, on average, US$200,000 per year to support someone in the final stages of ALS.

Then there are those who have lost focus and done really stupid and cruel things with the Ice Bucket Challenge. At least one person has been killed during the challenge and an autistic boy was doused with urine and faeces and spat on during an Ice Bucket Challenge 'prank'. Since then, comedian Drew Carey has offered a US$10,000 reward to catch the teens responsible for the barbaric act.

The critics may have some valid points, but I think that the challenge is a great concept, brilliantly utilizing social media to raise money for and increase awareness about a terrible disease that many people did not know even existed. Rather than criticize, I think that it would be a fantastic idea for us to come up with an effective challenge to raise funds for a disease that affects many in my country, such as endometriosis. Yes, I am a gynaecologist, so I may be a little biased, but this debilitating disease causes severe chronic pain and infertility in women, significantly affecting their qualities of life, and can be rather expensive to treat. So my challenge to you all is to come up with a challenge that can successfully challenge this disease. Any ideas?

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.