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Polio: Pakistan and Afghanistan

Volume 800: debated on Thursday 24 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made to eradicate polio in (1) Pakistan, and (2) Afghanistan.

My Lords, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the last countries in the world with cases of wild poliovirus. Conflict and inaccessibility make delivering the polio vaccine to all children there very difficult. Nevertheless, we assess that there has been good progress. The eradication programme is deploying new strategies to ensure that no one is left behind, such as tackling misinformation about vaccine safety head-on. The UK remains steadfast in its resolve to rid the world of this debilitating disease.

I thank the Minister for her response. We are on the cusp of eradicating polio and Pakistan and Afghanistan are chief among the very few problem areas that remain. One reason for this is the attacks by anti-vaxxers; tragically, in April this year a vaccinator and two security men were killed in Pakistan. Today is World Polio Day and I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to them and all aid workers everywhere who continue to risk their lives. What urgent action are we taking together with the Government of Pakistan to quell fears about the polio vaccine?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question—on World Polio Day, as she highlighted. I am absolutely in agreement that we must ensure that those trying to bring life-saving support to the most vulnerable are not subject to violence. She is sadly right that we have seen attacks on vaccinators both in Pakistan and Nigeria, and we are working very closely with Governments to ensure that those attacks stop. We are also working with religious and traditional leaders to ensure that these people are kept safe. We have recently seen a very welcome fatwa issued supporting Pakistan’s polio vaccination programme in an effort to end that violence.

My Lords, are the Government aware of the recent outbreak of polio in the southern Philippines, where there have been two confirmed cases and a number of tests are outstanding which might produce more confirmed cases? Is this not the result of protracted conflict in Mindanao and the resulting poor health and vaccination services, and does the international community need to do more to ensure that areas affected by conflict and the poor local health services that result do not suffer these outbreaks of polio that can then spread the disease much further than Afghanistan and Pakistan?

The noble Lord is quite right; we have recently seen two confirmed outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio in the Philippines, which is such a shame, coming 20 years after the country eradicated that disease. We are running a campaign in the Philippines, in collaboration with the WHO and UNICEF, to launch a widespread immunisation campaign to give millions of children the polio vaccination there. The noble Lord is quite right that we must ensure that we continue to invest in water, sanitation and hygiene in the poorest parts of the world to ensure that this disease is not spread. It also shows that we must not take our foot off the pedal on this; we have seen a country that has not had an outbreak in 20 years suffering, so we must continue until we completely eradicate this disease.

My Lords, as has already been said, today is World Polio Day. Will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to Rotary International for being in the forefront of the work on eradication for over 30 years?

I am very pleased that my noble friend highlights the work of Rotary International. As she said, it has been at the forefront of the work to eradicate polio for more than 30 years, and it is a founding member of the WHO Global Polio Eradication Initiative. I will certainly join my noble friend in paying tribute to it today and I sure that many noble Lords will want to do the same. Rotary International has contributed more than £1.3 billion to the global initiative, which includes more than £32 million raised in Great Britain and Northern Ireland alone. My Secretary of State, Alok Sharma, was pleased to attend an event with Rotary International yesterday, where he met fundraisers and survivors of the disease.

My Lords, I welcome the strength of the commitment in the Minister’s remarks today. Going the last mile and finding those most difficult cases—going from elimination to eradication—is a very expensive and difficult exercise. However, does the Minister agree that it is in fact an investment, which is the only protection for the world against the resurgence of such diseases? Therefore, will she also look at the Lancet Commission report on malaria eradication and the measures set out there, and again take that concerted approach that will allow us to rid the world of malaria? I declare my interest as chair of Malaria No More UK.

The noble Baroness is right: the last mile is often the most difficult. We must not be complacent; we do have remaining challenges as we work towards complete eradication. We must continue the support from the UK and the international community on that. It is absolutely in the UK’s interest and the global interest to ensure that we do not see the return of this disease. Some figures say that even within a decade, we will see hundreds of thousands of new cases if we do not continue this. We must also look at how we combat malaria as well—absolutely. We were pleased to make such a significant contribution to the Global Fund recently, but both the UK and international partners must work together to tackle these diseases.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right that we must not take our foot off the pedal. Even in countries such as India, it is vital that we continue to support initiatives and ensure vaccination. I welcome the commitment to Gavi and other global partnerships. Can she tell us more how we will continue to support Gavi and such global partnerships to ensure that we not only halt the progress of these diseases but eradicate them forever?

I will take a moment to highlight the great news today: the historic announcement that the world has been certified free of type 3 of the wild poliovirus. That significant achievement should help reinvigorate the process and provide motivation for the final step. The noble Lord is right to highlight both the Global Fund and Gavi; we must continue to contribute to these funds and work together. We are pleased that the UK will host Gavi next year in London and Liverpool, where we are looking forward to demonstrating our continued commitment and galvanising the international community to do more.

My Lords, as the global polio eradication initiative winds down, what action are the Government taking to ensure that this transition does not undermine the achievements made so far?

On World Polio Day, we should celebrate the success of the achievements so far—but, as I said, we must ensure that we continue on that. The transition point is very important. As was highlighted in the case of the Philippines, even 20 years after an outbreak we cannot be sure that it will not come back. So we must continue with the fight and continue with vaccinations and make sure that we reach the last, hardest-to-reach people—but we must ensure, as we transition, we hope, into a polio-free world, that it stays that way.