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Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to assist local communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo to deliver health advice on the Ebola epidemic, which has now spread to the city of Goma.

The UK has supported the response to the outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo since it began in August 2018. UK aid has supported the full range of response and preparedness activities, including vaccination, surveillance, treatment and community engagement, including in Goma. The response is led by the Government of the DRC. On the ground, this must be a locally owned response with strong support from the international community.

I thank the Minister for her response and for all that DfID and others are doing. If we are to prevent further spread of the disease, we need more grass-roots health education and disease prevention. My colleague, the Bishop of Hertford, is currently using his sabbatical to do just that, working through churches, local community leaders and faith groups, and his health educational material, translated into Swahili, is being delivered through the Anglican dioceses and by 800 Baptist pastors in every part of the DRC. Will the Minister explore how we can support this grass-roots work with indigenous leaders and communities, including the churches, and will she meet me to see how we can build on this initiative?

I would be delighted to meet the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans to discuss this further. Of course, NGOs at the grass roots have a real role to play in helping to deal with this devastating situation. We value them and want to ensure that their contribution is maximised. It is excellent that the right reverend Prelate’s colleague is spending some time trying to do just that.

My Lords, I too congratulate DfID and the Government on their work in combating this awful disease. On the radio this morning we heard about the success of vaccination, including the vaccination of 3,000 health workers. However, as the right reverend Prelate alluded to, there is huge resistance to extending that vaccination programme, which would halt the disease. It needs support. I know that the Government are giving financial support but what other support will they give to ensure that we widen the programme?

One thing that the Government are doing—and must do more—is to break down the mistrust that prevents people going for treatment and vaccination in this area. The pastor who contracted Ebola in the Goma area has, regrettably, passed away. It would have been helpful if he could have sought medical treatment sooner. Therefore, my answer to the noble Lord’s question is that we must try to break down mistrust and to communicate and promote the sense in being vaccinated.

My Lords, the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2016 resulted in the deaths of more than 11,000 people. The current trajectory of the growth of the disease in the DRC is massive compared with that outbreak in west Africa. It is truly frightening and is putting both Uganda and Rwanda at risk. There is almost no functioning state in eastern DRC—I know; I have been there—with corrupt, predatory and violent police, malicious stealing, and raping and killing at will. What is the Government’s response to the WHO’s plea to help fill the massive funding gap in the region? I know that the Minister said that we are helping, but how much are we helping to tackle the outbreak? Will the Government support the call for a ceasefire brokered by the UN to get at least six months’ respite to help stop the spread of Ebola?

The noble Lord makes a very valid point—a ceasefire would be great. I cannot give him an accurate response but I will go away and find out what is being done to promote that—I am sure that people are trying to work towards it. The Secretary of State has announced more funding of up to £50 million because we should be committed and we should, and will, put that money in, but he wants it to act as a catalyst to others to act in the same way. My understanding is that when the Secretary of State made his speech, lots of reasons were given as to why the situation and the politics are difficult, but no reason was given for why people could not contribute more. I can give the whole House an assurance that the Secretary of State will not give up in his quest to get more people to put more money forward.

Will my noble friend consult her colleagues in the Foreign Office? I think that excellent work is being done with vaccinations but there is a need for a political dialogue in eastern Congo to persuade people, through the local communities, that vaccination is not dangerous. There is a terrible fear of the needle—that it is bringing in the disease—so we need not just medical treatment but some psychological warfare, as I might call it, to persuade local leaders to encourage the take-up of vaccination.

I can only agree with my noble friend about how important vaccination is. We know about its benefits and how safe it is. It is common for people to be afraid of needles, so it is not an easy matter. Perhaps I may take noble Lords back to the point that the right reverend Prelate made about the 800 pastors whom the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation trained. They are working at grass-roots level to ensure that prevention is on the agenda—vaccination is a great contributor to that—and that the culture is changed. But I will take back my noble friend’s point regarding the Foreign Office and will see what I can do.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that all the prevention and treatment programmes funded directly or indirectly by DfID are being delivered not in English and French, which have proved ineffective in the past, but in Swahili and the other three official community languages of the DRC?

In preparation for the Question, I had to ask my officials what “francophone” meant, which reflects the point made by the noble Baroness. These things are indeed being done in other languages so that we can get the messages to people in the most effective way.

My Lords, we are running the risk of being complacent. This disease, when we discussed it in the Chamber a few month ago, was confined to rural parts of the DRC, and we were hoping it would remain confined. It has now spread to Goma, a large city on the border with Rwanda and, as has been said, there are already cases in Uganda. I know that the WHO is responsible for surveillance but we are running the risk, as we did with Sierra Leone, that we will wait for the big outbreak to occur. We have in this country two of the greatest experts in the control of Ebola: Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, and Professor Peter Piot. It is time this Government took the lead in trying to control the spread of the disease by using our own experts to advise.

I must apologise to the noble Lord if he feels there is any complacency from the Government, or indeed that my answers have given him any reason to believe that. We are not, and will not be, complacent. We must use all the medical expertise at our disposal to get the message through to people; but we must also get to the grass roots to ensure that people are not frightened to take the message up. The noble Lord’s point is well made.

The WHO has made it absolutely plain that one of the biggest health security risks across the world is a lack of qualified healthcare workers. As we see the potential for this disease to become no longer isolated to specific African countries, how is DfID working with our own Department of Health to ensure that we train more healthcare workers here and reduce our reliance on those from abroad when they are so desperately needed in other parts of the world? Perhaps the Minister can answer this question.

Obviously, health security is critical. I can assure the noble Baroness that the Secretary of State, when he was in Geneva last week, made this a key part of his contribution to the wider audience. I can only agree, as can DfID and the whole Government, that the point she makes about training healthcare workers locally is the one we must follow.