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Health: Tropical Diseases

Volume 734: debated on Thursday 26 January 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what international support they expect to receive for the new Department for International Development initiative to combat neglected tropical diseases announced on 21 January.

The Government have just announced a fivefold increase in support for neglected tropical diseases. This will help to protect more than 140 million people worldwide. It will strengthen the UK’s partnerships with the World Health Organisation, foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carter Center, other donors, pharmaceutical companies that are making drug donations, the endemic countries and non-governmental organisations.

I welcome that very positive response from the Minister and the Government’s initiative in this field. I should declare a non-financial interest as a trustee of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, which works to develop new vaccines for diseases such as human hook worm and on mass drug administration programmes.

Does the Minister agree that diseases such as guinea worm, river blindness and schistosomiasis not only devastate the health, education and employment prospects of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people but impede progress towards the achievement of the millennium development goals? Given that eradication is a real possibility and that intervention is so cost-effective, will the Government do all they can to ensure that generous donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other countries continue their efforts so that we can rid the world of these truly awful diseases?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. I pay tribute to her and to her husband Martin Hayman for all that they have done in this field. When this announcement was made, my honourable friend Stephen O’Brien said:

“British support will take the neglected out of neglected tropical diseases”.

That is clearly critical. The noble Baroness is absolutely right: these are devastating diseases. The United Kingdom can help gear up what is happening elsewhere. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been remarkable in what it has managed to achieve, as has the Carter Center. The possible elimination of guinea worm by 2015 would be the second human disease that we have managed to eliminate.

Does the Minister agree that the distribution of drugs and the setting up of treatment programmes present a huge challenge in many of the countries where these neglected tropical diseases are endemic, where health systems are already struggling to provide even the most basic services? Would she also agree that a further challenge comes from meeting requirements to regulate a range of what will be new medical products and to evaluate their safety, their efficacy and their quality in very particular conditions, for instance in Africa? Will the Minister assure the House that funding will be provided to support efforts to strengthen health systems and to build capacity to regulate the new drugs?

I can give the noble Baroness that assurance. She will know that there is a conference on Monday that will be attended by Bill Gates and many organisations, including the WHO. This will doubtless be part of what they will be considering.

Would my noble friend agree that this Government’s policy of increasing aid to developing countries is just and admirable and so is the method of giving aid on condition that it is spent on agreed projects and carried out by reputable NGOs?

I thank my noble friend for those comments. I would also point out that British universities, which have a long track record in research on tropical diseases, are also able to take advantage of this so that the work done at Imperial College, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine should also be encouraged.

My Lords, now that smallpox has been eradicated from the world and that the same may soon be true of poliomyelitis and that vaccines for malaria and many other neglected tropical diseases are in an advanced stage of development, this development by government is most welcome. Is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient training opportunities in tropical medicine in this country to enable doctors to be trained who wish to work in the tropics on the eradication of these diseases?

I thank the noble Lord for his comments. The prospects before us are astonishing. I have just mentioned the United Kingdom universities and their research centres. I know that various noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, are playing a part in trying to ensure just that.

Can my noble friend confirm that the £20 million increase in funding, a fivefold increase, from the UK Government is in fact dependent on finding matching funds? Therefore, can she tell your Lordships’ House what progress has been made in securing those matching funds, and whether this would enable the programme to maintain its dynamicism, which is obviously so important?

Yes, the contribution to the Carter Center is based on matched funding, and the conference on Monday will help to take this area forward.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Sightsavers, part of the UK Coalition against Neglected Tropical Diseases. I congratulate the Government on this initiative and on continuing the leading role that the UK plays in development. Does the Minister agree that the Government, national Governments in the affected countries, Sightsavers and others can now plan confidently to eradicate blinding trachoma—it is eminently preventable: we know all the ways to do it and we have the drugs—and that we should be able to do that in the next decade?

I certainly hope that that will be the case, and one of the diseases that this new programme will focus on is indeed trachoma.