Skip to main content

Zika Virus

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on what measures her Department will put in place to support countries worst affected by the very serious Zika virus, which has now been declared by the World Health Organisation as a public health emergency, and if she will outline any plans to work with other Departments to mitigate the risks to British travellers.

Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State is travelling and it therefore falls to me to do my best to answer the hon. Lady’s question. She raises an issue that is of great concern to many of our constituents.

The World Health Organisation is working with the Governments of the countries worst affected to lead the response to the Zika virus. We welcome the recommendations of the WHO emergency committee on Zika, and the UK Government are assessing our response. The hon. Lady will be aware that the UK has been at the forefront of global efforts to ensure that the WHO has the funding, expertise and systems to respond to emerging disease threats such as Zika. As the second-largest national funder of the WHO, the Department of Health met the UK’s £15 million commitment to WHO core funding in 2015, alongside political and technical support to strengthen the organisation and its preparedness. In addition, the Department for International Development made a discretionary contribution of £14.5 million in 2015. As part of the UK effort to strengthen global health security, DFID contributed an additional £6.2 million to the WHO’s contingency fund for emergencies, which can be used for the management of Zika.

In response to the hon. Lady’s question about the risk to the British public, the first thing to say is that the risk to the UK population from Zika remains extremely low. We have already taken a number of steps to ensure that the UK public are protected, but of course we are not complacent. In light of the WHO’s decision, we will review our approach both to action to mitigate the risk to the UK and to considering what additional support the UK could offer to the countries and regions affected. DFID is working with the Department of Health and colleagues across Government on our response at the highest level.

The Minister will be aware that money alone is not the issue. In the past four months alone, Brazil has recorded more than 4,000 cases of microcephaly—babies born with deformed small heads. The Minister will also be aware that the Olympic games will be in less than 200 days. More than 1 million tourists are expected to descend on Rio.

Does the Minister agree that research is a high priority? We urgently need proof of a causative link between the Zika infection and microcephaly, and then to know how the virus damages the brain of the growing foetus. Developing countries will need support for the mothers of the thousands of deformed babies to be able to take their family life forward. Does the Minister also agree that diagnostics, antiviral drugs and, above all, a Zika vaccine are essential?

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that research is very important. We do not know enough about this disease, particularly the links to microcephaly and the other consequences to which she alludes. The UK stands ready to play a full part in upgrading our knowledge. Specifically, we recently announced a £400,000 Newton Fund Zika research project between Glasgow University and Fiocruz in Pernambuco, the hotspot of the outbreak. Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine arrived in Recife last week. We are currently looking at what additional interventions are required to reduce the spread of the disease and its impact on developing countries, particularly countries where DFID is extremely active and where there may be a risk of crossover.

My constituents would like to know whether the risk to human health from the Zika virus is as prevalent as that from Ebola. If it is, should our response not be on the same scale? If it is not, why is it not?

I think I can reassure my hon. Friend’s constituents—and mine—that we are talking about a very different disease. That is not in any way to understate our concern, and the concern of the international community, about the spread of the virus, and in particular the links to congenital abnormalities, which we have discussed. I hope he can also take some reassurance from the relative speed that the WHO has shown in declaring an emergency, with the international response that triggers, which to my mind looks very vigorous and on it.

I particularly welcome the announcement of funding for the University of Glasgow, which is my constituency. Over a month ago, its specialists were highlighting the risk of a rapid expansion of the spread of the Zika virus. The International Development Committee report on the Ebola response recommended early engagement with local communities and recognised the role that local and faith leaders can play in spreading public health information and good practice. What role does the Department see for local and community-based organisations in responding to the Zika outbreak, and what support will the Department provide?

Given that much of the outbreak is in Latin America, where many countries are now classified as middle-income, does the Minister recognise the role for his Department and others in supporting such countries in continuing to develop and strengthen their infrastructure, not least because such shocks to the system could put development gains at risk?

I note the hon. Gentleman’s constituency interest. He is entirely right that community-level support is fundamental to the strengthening of health systems, which he and I have debated in the past, and to DFID’s development work. The response of Brazil—a country I know relatively well, having lived there for five years—has been impressive. It appears to be well supported, not least by the Americans, and we have made it clear to it that we are here to help on the ground. DFID does not have a footprint in Brazil, but we are greatly concerned about the risk of this disease spreading to countries where we, on behalf of the UK taxpayer, have a big exposure. Our primary concern is assisting those countries to alert their health systems, which we actively support, and to anticipate, manage and mitigate future risk.

In the light of the Ebola crisis, how are the Government scrutinising and supporting the WHO leadership, which was severely criticised during that crisis, while the UK response was greatly praised?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Concerns were expressed on the Floor of the House about the capacity of the WHO and the pace of its response to the Ebola situation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that the UK, as the second-largest donor, is far from complacent about the need for reform, including monitoring reform. The chief scientific adviser and colleagues at the Department of Health are working together closely to ensure that the WHO is up to the mark, and colleagues will note that the latter has moved more quickly this time. We are in regular dialogue with it to ensure that its systems are as agile and responsive as they can be.

It is predicted that 16,000 children will be affected by microcephaly this year in Latin America, so the world’s community is in a race against time with this horrible virus. Last week, the Chancellor announced funding of £500 million a year to the Ross Fund at Liverpool University to fight malaria. Compared with that, the announcement of £400,000 for Glasgow, which the Minister has just mentioned, pales into insignificance. Through him, may I urge the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to consider all resources to tackle the outbreak of this virus, for which there is no test, cure or vaccine? Any vaccine would require the application of careful moral and ethical standards to its testing on pregnant women, but it is necessary to save a generation of women and their children from disability and poverty.

The hon. Lady is entirely right. I thank her for reminding the House of the Chancellor’s major commitment to fighting malaria. The Government’s commitments to the Ross Fund and the UK vaccines network make it clear that we stand ready to play a leading role in the development of a vaccination, though it would take time to come through. In the short term, however, I would not lose sight of the sensible steps we can take to educate people about how to mitigate the risk to themselves—by reviewing their travel plans and seeking medical advice before a journey—and to make the medical system in this country better informed about the risks.

If we are now talking about an international response, what assessment have the Government made of the threat in other parts of the world? What precautions should British travellers make if they are going to parts of the world where mosquitoes are present, such as Africa and Asia?

I know that will be a concern for many of my hon. Friend’s constituents and mine. I suggest that she entreat her constituents to access the Foreign Office travel advice for countries and territories where there is an ongoing outbreak and direct travellers to the advice issued by the National Travel Health Network and Centre. That advice is constantly updated and can be relied on.

As the hon. Lady might expect, we are not remotely complacent, given the concerns, although the public health risk in the UK is extremely low, as I have emphasised. Colleagues across Government—this is being led at the highest level—are having an active and live conversation about all the measures we can take, particularly in response to the WHO’s recommendations.

I welcome the commitment to ensure that there is research into the virus, but that is for the long term; we also need short-term measures. If the virus is being transmitted by mosquitoes, might there be a role for DFID to divert funds into practical measures, such as the provision of mosquito nets, which have been effective against malaria in the past?

I thank my hon. Friend for placing on the record her respect for DFID’s work in leading an extraordinarily successful global effort to reduce malaria. In the current context, we are talking about a different type of mosquito and risk, but, as she hints, the countries most directly affected, such as Brazil, can still do a great deal to control and manage the risk on the ground, through the control of stagnant water, spraying and other common-sense measures. Such things require a big logistical effort, but so far Brazil seems to have risen impressively to that challenge. As I have stressed, we have made it clear that this country stands ready to help in any way we can.

The Minister is right that the risk of an outbreak in the UK is low, but what steps have the Government taken to ensure that NHS staff can spot the signs and symptoms of the Zika virus? Working with his colleague, the public health Minister, will he keep under review the option of a public health education programme?

It is not for nothing that the public health Minister is sitting alongside me. I am satisfied that colleagues are working with professional groups to develop information and guidance on Zika for clinicians—it is not a condition we have grown up with—and this advice can be accessed through the Public Health England website and has been cascaded by organisations such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. This advice includes background and travel-related guidance on Zika, and from tomorrow it will include guidance, developed jointly with the royal college, on the management of pregnant women. PHE plans to provide guidance and information specifically targeted at primary care, which we anticipate will be available shortly.

To defeat such horrible illnesses, we need to tackle them at their source, as we saw with the Ebola crisis and outbreak. Given the success of Operation Gritrock in Sierra Leone in fighting Ebola, has DFID had any discussion with the Ministry of Defence about potentially supporting any operations, if the virus moves into countries less able than Brazil to mount a major attack against it?

I would be the first to acknowledge the enormously important role the MOD and our armed forces played in Sierra Leone and the success story that was the battle against Ebola. The current situation is different. I am not aware of such conversations, but I know that colleagues at the top of the relevant Departments are working closely together to keep on top of the options for helping the international community fight this alarming condition.

I welcome the statement and echo the fact that there is no direct threat to people here in Britain. I would have thought that the biggest threat is from spectators and competitors returning from the Rio Olympics to other hot countries, such as sub-Saharan or north African countries. Do we not therefore need to support having a massive campaign before the Olympics to reduce the impact of these mosquitoes? If this travels and these people are not identifiable and not testable, and do not even know they are unwell, we could end up with this virus getting established in north Africa, and many pregnant women go on holiday to southern Europe.

I thank the hon. Lady for making that extremely important point. I have a huge amount of empathy with it, not least because I have ministerial responsibility for sub-Saharan Africa. To reassure her, Public Health England has been in contact with the International Olympic Committee regarding travel advice for the Rio Olympics. That organising committee is working with the Ministry of Health in Brazil to develop travel advice for Olympic visitors and is currently looking at all the potential risks before circulating guidance. On the specific point about African countries and other countries in which DFID has a large stake, we will obviously review intensively what we can do to work with our partners in countries that face risks, not least in respect of improving and strengthening the resilience of their health systems so that they can educate and communicate with their citizens effectively.

The Minister mentioned two excellent facilities in London and Glasgow, but forgot to mention the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which receives Gates money because of the expertise based in the facility. Will he ensure that there is greater collaboration between the different institutions within the UK, which have such great expertise, to ensure that we find a vaccine as soon as it is reasonably practicable to do so?

The hon. Gentleman raises a poignant point, and I congratulate him on putting Liverpool back on the map. Of course, that was where the Chancellor announced the Government’s major new commitment on dealing with malaria. When it comes to the science and research—the importance of that has been stressed— the UK has an incredibly important role to play. It is crucial that this work is co-ordinated effectively. I have been reassured that the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser are playing their role in co-ordinating British expertise in this area.

The ability of countries to cope with global infectious disease outbreaks, whether it be Zika, Ebola or HIV/AIDS, is often contingent on the strength, resilience and capacity of their national health systems—the core health systems in those countries. Will the Minister say a little about what DFID is doing to support health system strengthening in countries that are either directly affected by Zika or at risk of being affected by it in the near future?

The hon. Gentleman’s general point is incredibly important. DFID places a huge amount of emphasis on the work that we do to stop people dying and to prevent diseases. Core to that is the work that we do with others to strengthen countries’ health systems, as well as the international system, as we discussed. It is about reform and investment in new tools and technologies—drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and tackling microbial resistance. Looking to the future, a key part of that is the investment in research of which this country should be proud.

Given that the eggs of this mosquito are reported to be able to survive in dry conditions for many days, what is the geographical extent of the spread of this virus within south and central America? What steps are being taken to manage the trade routes on which the eggs of those mosquitoes may be carried?

The mapping of south and central America is relatively well advanced, and I believe we have reasonably good information on that. The American authorities are alive to the risk and absolutely on it. To be honest with the hon. Gentleman, I am more concerned from a DFID perspective about the need to map and model the risks for other parts of the world, not least sub-Saharan Africa.

The Australians have already allowed two virologists to go to Brazil. What work has the Minister done on analysing what expertise the UK has, and would he be prepared to release it to Brazil if the country requested it?

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that when it comes to research, science and medicine, this country has an extremely strong relationship with Brazil, which has developed over many years. As part of our response to the situation, connections have been made in that context, and I referred to the announcement of a £400,000 Newton Fund Zika research project between Glasgow University and Fiocruz in Pernambuco. British scientists and experts have already made it quite clear that we are prepared to help, and those connections are alive and well.

What advice will the UK Government give to the blood transfusion service about travel histories for prospective blood donors? Will there be any retrospective screening of donations already made?

I am informed by the public health Minister that a 28-day deferral notice has already been communicated, and that she will correspond directly to the hon. Lady on the point she has raised.

I, too, thank the Minister for the statement. Given the arrangements whereby British nationals can enter Brazil without a visa and the ever-expanding tourism industry in the country, does the Minister agree that we need a highly publicised advice campaign on travelling to Brazil so that precautions can be taken in regard to the Zika virus before travel to that country actually takes place?

We keep the situation under review, as it is an important part of the British Government’s responsibility to our citizens. As I said, Foreign Office advice on travel is regularly reviewed in the light of evidence. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to point his constituents to it.

I understand that there was an outbreak of the Zika virus in the Indian sub-continent in the past. What further representations have the UK Government made to the WHO about a further potential outbreak in south-east Asia?

Clearly, there is a risk of the virus spreading. It is present in a large number of countries already, so part of our contribution to the global international response is to work with the WHO and others to model the risks as they relate to areas about which we do not have enough evidence on prevalence. Such modelling is part of the British contribution.

It is incredibly difficult to control mosquito-borne diseases, but we do need a long-term public health plan. I pay tribute to the valuable work that DFID has done in tackling the malarial mosquito in sub-Saharan Africa. What role is the UK playing in helping to develop and research a vaccine for the Zika virus?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for paying tribute to DFID’s work on malaria, which is incredibly important given that it is estimated that a child dies of malaria every minute. I refer him to my previous answer on research through the Ross Fund and to other pots of funding created, which means that this country is in a position to show genuine leadership on the issue.

I simply seek the Minister’s assurance that he is working hand in glove with Ministers in the devolved Administrations, not least the Welsh Government, so that there is a fully co-ordinated response.

Yes, that is incredibly important, and I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the advice has been shared. In fact, calls are in place to follow it up this very afternoon.