Six months on from its formal declaration, the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remains challenging to contain. 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 hon. Friend the Minister for Africa’s statement on 20 November, Official Report, column 737, elections have taken place in the DRC and a new President inaugurated. Disruption over the election period hindered response activities; as a result, there has been an increase in the number of new Ebola cases reported this year.
As of 12 February, there were 823 confirmed and probable cases. Of these, 517 people have died and 280 recovered. The response, ably led by the DRC authorities with international support directed by the World Health Organisation, has continued to expand and adapt. Approximately 7,000 contacts are currently under surveillance. The experimental vaccine, developed with UK aid following the 2014 west Africa outbreak, has been administered to over 78,000 people in DRC, including 21,000 health and frontline workers and 16,000 children. Let me pay tribute to all the DRC health workers and international experts who are dealing with this outbreak in very challenging circumstances.
Geographical shifts in the outbreak are testing the capacity of the response. As more health zones are affected and cases move further south, there is an increased likelihood of an outbreak in Goma, the provincial capital on the border with Rwanda. Preparedness work has been under way in Goma, including setting up case surveillance, an Ebola treatment centre and a laboratory.
The DRC Government have just released their third strategic response plan, which sets out plans for the next six months. It is quite possible that it will take longer for this outbreak to be fully contained. The UK is supporting the response through both funding and expertise. At the request of the DRC Government I am not announcing specific funding figures, to avoid putting first-line responders at further risk of attack. But let me restate that it is in our national interest to find ways of building resilience to such deadly diseases, preventing their international spread and saving lives. The UK has supported the response since the very start and will continue to do so for as long as it takes to curb the outbreak.
The critical challenge now is to break the chain of transmission in DRC. That means redoubling contact tracing; training and supporting health workers in infection prevention control; continuing the vaccination effort; and working with local communities so they can spot symptoms, report them and seek treatment. WHO is doing a good job in difficult circumstances to lead the international response. It has over 500 people deployed to DRC and is working closely with other parts of the UN system and with international NGOs including MSF, ALIMA and Oxfam to help the people of DRC tackle this deadly disease. Key areas we would like to see strengthened in the international response include leadership, co-ordination and analysis.
This will require sustained support. To date, the UK is one of the largest bilateral donors to the Ebola response in DRC and for regional preparedness efforts in Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. Others must now step up and I will be urging our international partners to do so.
In addition to funding, the UK has supported preparations for clinical trials of new therapeutic drugs which have started in Beni. The UK public health rapid support team has played a major part in making this work possible. Technical experts have been deployed to eastern DRC, including two senior epidemiologists, a data scientist and a clinical trials specialist.
UK aid has provided WHO with six armoured vehicles to facilitate response work in such insecure operating environments. We are also backing efforts to understand and address the social and cultural dimensions of the outbreak, which in turn supports key interventions such as ensuring that burials in affected areas are conducted in a safe and dignified way.
There remains a significant risk of transmission to neighbouring countries and measures are be taken to prepare. For example, in Uganda, closest to the current outbreak, the Government have already vaccinated over 3,500 health workers in high priority districts. Community sensitisation is also taking place.
In Rwanda, the UK is backing the Government’s preparedness plans, including the training of health care workers, vaccination planning and the screening of more than 24 million people at Rwanda’s borders.
In South Sudan, UK support has led to the installation of an Ebola screening facility at Juba international airport. So far, over 1 million people at land and air borders have been screened. We are also helping to procure ambulances and sanitation equipment for isolation facilities.
The risk of Ebola to the UK population remains very low. Public Health England continues to monitor the situation daily and review the risk assessment on a two-weekly basis.
The UK is fully committed to containing this outbreak and to our longer-term efforts to combat deadly diseases in sub-Saharan Africa.