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Ebola Outbreak

Volume 664: debated on Monday 9 September 2019

Since the House was last updated on the response to the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in July, sadly the situation on the ground has become even more grave—despite the brave and tireless dedication of frontline responders.

I therefore want to assure the House that the UK—in partnership with communities, local authorities and trusted international partners—is doing everything it can to save lives.

Sadly, we have recently seen new cases in areas previously unaffected by the outbreak. In August, we saw cases emerge for the first time in the province of South Kivu. And in July, a number of cases were detected in Goma, a city of 2 million people on the border with Rwanda, prompting the World Health Organisation to declare a public health emergency of international concern.

On Thursday 29 August, a nine-year-old Congolese girl was screened as a suspected case as she and her mother crossed the border from DRC. Tragically, she was confirmed as positive with Ebola and passed away. This is the seventh Ebola outbreak in Uganda since the year 2000 and the Ugandan authorities once again deserve praise for their swift response.

When I visited Uganda last month, I saw first-hand how UK aid is helping guard against the spread of Ebola. The border screening point and treatment centre, constructed with UK support, identified the above case.

The vital importance and effectiveness of health workers and communities—and of UK aid support for them—was shown again in rapidly identifying and confirming the case of the nine-year- old girl and appropriately moving her for isolation and care. Trained frontline workers and community awareness are crucial to mapping, monitoring and vaccinating potential cases. Thankfully, no further suspect cases in Uganda have yet been identified; although follow-up monitoring and surveillance continues.

Despite successes, hard work and dedication, the outbreak is still not under control. The death toll recently passed 2,000. We will not succeed in getting Ebola under control unless the international community as a whole steps up and supports the response. The world cannot afford to ignore Ebola, as it could spread further, making it a threat to us all.

That is why, in August, I announced an additional £8 million for neighbouring countries most at risk of the spread of Ebola, namely Uganda, South Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda. This funding will deliver more temperature checks at border crossings—which have been so crucial in Uganda. It will also support Ebola treatment units and provide clean water and sanitation. This is in addition to the £45 million that UK aid has already provided for tackling the outbreak in the DRC and a previous £15 million for regional preparedness.

The British people can be proud of the UK’s leading role in the response. We are the leading supporter of regional preparedness, and one of the largest donors to the overall response, alongside the US, ECHO and the World Bank. We are saving lives and bringing this outbreak to a close.

Despite the gravity of the situation, there is some cause for optimism. More than 200,000 people have now been vaccinated against the disease, which is a truly remarkable effort. This highly effective vaccine was developed with UK support during the latter stages of the west Africa outbreak, in 2013-16.

Moreover, recent results from the trials of therapeutic treatments have also shown positive results, showing that we can treat this disease if it is detected early enough. Around 900 people have recovered from the virus and more could stand to benefit.

Investment in research and development is a crucial part of the Department’s work. I am extremely proud of the world-leading and innovative efforts we are supporting in this area. But if we are to tackle the spread of the disease, then more must be done. We must help support the longer-term strengthening of health systems around the world. However, more immediately, the international community needs to step up to support the response in the DRC. There is absolutely no room for complacency.

In recent months the response has been underfunded by the international community. This has had a detrimental impact on response activities on the ground: without funding, frontline responders are unable to deliver life-saving support such as treating patients, tracing and vaccinating their contacts, and burying the dead safely.

The UK has consistently pushed for other countries to step up their financial support. Although more commitments have now been given, we will continue to press our friends and partners for stronger action, including in New York later this month during the United Nations General Assembly. We must also make sure that funds are made available quickly and go where they are most needed, as set out in the recently published fourth strategic response plan, which is the joint UN and Government of DRC plan to tackle the disease.

As I saw so clearly during my visit to Uganda, we must break down the barriers between the international response and local communities. Dispelling the myths surrounding the virus is critical in ensuring that patients are both able and willing to seek treatment.

UK support is therefore funding a wide range of activities, from employing Ebola survivors to talk to communities about treatment, to engaging with local religious leaders to foster trust. UK aid has funded safe and dignified burials, allowing families to have their loved ones buried in line with traditional practices, while protecting themselves from the virus.

But mistrust remains, complicated by the fact that the outbreak is found in a region afflicted by decades of conflict and violence. The scale of the challenge cannot be underestimated.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to the health workers who risk their lives daily to combat the spread of this terrible disease. We have seen health workers attacked and even killed for doing their job, and I am sure that the whole House will agree that we must condemn these deplorable acts of violence.

At its heart, this must be a community-led and owned response, but with strong financial and technical support from the international community. Although the risk of Ebola to the UK population remains very low, we all know that diseases do not respect borders. I can therefore assure the House that Britain remains committed to supporting the effort to combat Ebola for as long as it takes to end the outbreak.