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Vector-borne Diseases

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the risk of vector-borne diseases, including dengue fever and West Nile virus, becoming established in the United Kingdom, as outlined in the report Health Effects of Climate Change in the UK published by the UK Health Security Agency on 11 December.

My Lords, I can confirm that an assessment has been completed. The Health Effects of Climate Change report shows the risks to the UK from vector-borne diseases, which are more likely in a warming climate. Working across government, the UK Health Security Agency’s extensive surveillance, including of vectors, animals, and humans, seeks to mitigate the risk of these diseases by minimising the likelihood of exotic vectors establishing, and by managing imported and locally acquired human cases.

I thank the Minister for his reply. If we are to minimise the impact of mosquito-borne diseases, we need, with some urgency, to develop a new generation of insecticides and other preventive measures for vector control. What long-term plans and support do His Majesty’s Government have to support product development partnerships, so we can minimise the impact of mosquito-borne diseases, whether in sub-Saharan Africa today, or in this country by 2050?

My Lords, I note that Health Ministers get asked Foreign Office questions, and Foreign Office Ministers get health questions. However, the right reverend Prelate raises a very good point. It is a very topical issue. The UK is a world leader in life sciences, and British science is at the cutting edge of fighting malaria. Our support to public/private product development partnerships has helped saved many lives. This includes support to the Liverpool-based Innovative Vector Control Consortium to develop novel bed nets and next-generation insecticides to overcome the threat of insecticide resistance. Since 2017, we have provided £44 million to develop new insecticides to prevent vector transmission of malaria and other vector-borne diseases. IVCC has developed many ground-breaking technologies, including a novel type of bed net that kills mosquitoes’ resistance to traditional insecticides.

My Lords, which vector-borne diseases are prevalent in the UK, and what are the Government doing to address this risk to public health?

My noble friend raises a very good point. Many of your Lordships will know that the primary vector-borne disease in the UK is currently Lyme disease. However, with climate change, we are likely to see conditions suitable for the establishment of invasive mosquitoes that are currently becoming established in other parts of Europe. These mosquitoes, as well as other species likely to be impacted by flooding, may increase the incidence of mosquito biting. In a warming climate, vector-borne diseases such as dengue and West Nile virus, which currently occur in warmer parts of Europe, will become more likely in the UK. We need to stay vigilant as these diseases may or may not occur in the UK.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but is he not aware that insecticides kill insects, not just mosquitoes, and are therefore quite poisonous to the environment? Is he aware of the highly successful research going on at Imperial College London with my colleagues, where they are enabling sterilised mosquitoes to be bred, so that eventually we will have mosquitoes that will not be able to breed? That would be a massive advance for the whole world, as it is starting to take effect as of now.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord. I was not aware of what is going on at Imperial College, but it would be very helpful to the world if mosquitoes could stop spreading their diseases.

My Lords, vector-borne diseases are not only about humans; they are also about animals. We have a current outbreak of bluetongue disease in the south of England, which is carried by midges originally coming from South Africa. What assessment have the Government made of this particular outbreak?

My Lords, I am not aware of the bluetongue outbreak, but the Government do a significant amount of research and checking at ports in the United Kingdom when we import livestock and other things. We monitor that, but I do not know about the specific case of bluetongue and I will write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, the Health Security Agency report warns that London may already be suitable for the survival of the kinds of mosquitoes that spread diseases. This is very worrying for anyone who lives here and experiences—with alarming regularity—the widespread areas of standing water that are caused by the poor drainage system. Given this health risk, will the Minister join the effort to improve the performance of Thames Water, a company that seems more interested in financial engineering than hydraulic engineering? It seems that our future health depends on the willingness of this Government to “kick water butt”.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord for that. The question on Thames Water is for a different department, but I agree that all water companies need to be aware of what is happening with global warming, specifically in terms of water-borne diseases and mosquitoes. The noble Lord is right: the climate modelling suggests it will affect London and the south-east. However, it will not be just the south-east: these mosquitoes could come in at any port in the United Kingdom, including in Scotland, so we have to be vigilant to make sure that these mosquitoes do not come in via vehicles.

My Lords, Lyme disease is on the increase. I know that in Scotland, when walking, I now have to take tick prevention measures that I never had to worry about 10 or 15 years ago. Indeed, the website of Mountaineering Scotland recorded that scientists had noted 800,000 ticks in just a short stretch of thick vegetation at the side of a path. Can my noble friend the Minister indicate how this intensifying risk, along with other existing UK disease-bearing vectors—because they are there—are being monitored across the UK? Very particularly, can he confirm that there is close collaboration with the devolved nations?

My noble friend is exactly right. When you go walking in the UK, not just in Scotland, it is always advisable to take insect repellent. The UKHSA will collaborate, and indeed is collaborating, with UK government departments and devolved Governments to make sure that the evidence emerging across the United Kingdom can be collected, because, other than mosquitoes, ticks bring diseases.

My Lords, as long ago as 2016, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee produced a report on the genetic modification of insects for protection of crops, and its possible application, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has already mentioned, to vector-borne diseases in humans. The only start-up company following research, which was based in Oxford, had to move to California because of lack of support. It now does field trials, which are the important part of testing any research that is carried out, to see if something is effective and to set a benchmark. The field trials are carried out in Brazil and other countries. With the threat of further insect-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika, is in not time that we invested more money in research to investigate how we can reduce the harm caused by vector-borne diseases?

The Government are doing exactly that and investing significantly into research. In terms of any private sector business that is looking into this, they should please contact me or the government department and we will work with them. If there is any research and development that we are not aware of, we are very keen to hear about it.

My Lords, the analysis in the UKSA report referred to by the right reverend Prelate uses a high-end global warming scenario to represent a worst-case situation without mitigation and adaptation. Could the Minister advise how government planning is based on other scenarios at different rates of climate change? How are the agreements at the recent COP 28, and previously, expected to affect the conditions in which vector-borne diseases proliferate?

The short answer to that is that we cannot be sure. A noble Lord asked about London and the south-east: that is a worst-case scenario. It is predicted to increase in the second half of the 21st century. As I have said previously, we need to monitor it in 2023 and onwards. Certainly, the south of England is warmer than the north and north-west of England; we just need to monitor it. These are worst-case scenarios of these diseases coming into the country. It is right and proper that we monitor them, and that we monitor them at the ports of entry—but it is a worst-case scenario and it may or may not happen this century.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The interchange today has recognised and made clear the health risks to this country through climate change—although of course we should remember that the main health risks are to far poorer countries than our own. The Minister said several times that other departments were involved. Has not the discussion today illustrated how wide the effects of climate change go and how they go into areas of security and health—far wider than is sometimes recognised purely in terms of climate or weather? Is the Minister confident that we have the right machinery of government, centrally and at the highest level, to assess the varied risks of climate change to this country and to manage them appropriately?

I thank the noble Baroness for her expertise and question. This Question involves three government departments: Defra, the Foreign Office and the Health Department. We, as a country, do not stand alone; we work with our partners in Europe. For example, there was a recent outbreak of these diseases in Paris and the south of France. We work with our counterparts in various European countries, so I am confident that the United Kingdom is very well placed to work in a co-ordinated way. As I referred to in a previous answer, we are world-beating in life sciences, so we are very well placed, and the Government and the various government departments involved are very on the ball on this.