The current outbreak of Ebola was declared in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), on 1 August. Following my written ministerial statement of 13 September, Official Report, column 38WS, I am updating the House on how the UK Government are continuing to support the response in DRC, and preparedness in neighbouring countries.
Since my last update, the number of confirmed Ebola cases in this outbreak has continued to rise, and stood at 146 on 7 October. The geographic coverage has also widened, with confirmed cases near the Ugandan border on Lake Albert. On 29 September, the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised the risk of national and regional spread of the outbreak from “high” to “very high”. The DRC Government, which are leading the response with the support of WHO, are preparing an extended response plan which will extend key activities for several months longer. As well as the response in the affected area, activities are also planned to support Ebola preparedness in other provinces across DRC.
One of the key challenges is insecurity. Attacks by armed groups in the affected area have disrupted the response and remain a major risk. This instability, as well as the area’s significant commercial links with neighbouring countries, means that there is a large amount of cross-border movement by both commercial travellers and refugees. WHO has developed a regional plan to help neighbouring countries at risk from Ebola to prepare for any potential cases.
My Department is ready to respond quickly and effectively to all kinds of sudden onset emergencies. That is why we maintain a central crisis reserve. In 2018-19, I have approved up to £20 million from this reserve to contribute to Ebola responses in the affected region. All donors have been asked not to announce figures for specific activities, to avoid putting implementing partners at risk from criminal elements. I hope the House will respect the need for discretion about this.
Through the crisis reserve, the UK Government provided early funding to the existing outbreak response, and to the WHO regional preparedness plan for at-risk countries bordering DRC. We will also be funding key UN posts in these countries to ensure they are prepared to deal with cases of Ebola.
In view of recent developments, we have increased our support, through WHO, for the response and preparedness activities in DRC and neighbouring countries. This funding will support a range of activities including surveillance, vaccinations, infection prevention and control, community engagement and safe and dignified burials.
To help people affected by, or at risk from, Ebola is the right thing to do. It is also in our national interest to find ways of building resilience to such deadly diseases. Therefore I stand ready to approve additional support, if required.
The UK Government are also drawing on all available scientific data about the latest outbreak. At present, it is not possible to make long-term projections about the course of the epidemic with any certainty but it is reasonable to assume that the outbreak will continue into 2019. We will continue to liaise closely with WHO and others to ensure that the available scientific evidence is reflected in scenario planning.
The current response is deploying an experimental vaccine to contacts of infected people and frontline health workers. This vaccine was developed with support from UK Aid following the west Africa Ebola epidemic. In DRC, over 14,000 people—over 5,000 of whom are health workers—have been vaccinated during this outbreak so far. The UK is also supporting training in preparation for clinical trials of several of the new therapeutic drugs for Ebola.
Public Health England assesses the risk of this outbreak to the UK as negligible to very low. They will continue to monitor and assess the outbreak closely. The UK Government remain at full readiness to respond should that risk change.