Diane Abbott Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 1:43 pm, 2nd February 2016
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on what measures her Department will put in place to support countries worst affected by the very serious Zika virus, which has now been declared by the World Health Organisation as a public health emergency, and if she will outline any plans to work with other Departments to mitigate the risks to British travellers.
Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State is travelling and it therefore falls to me to do my best to answer the hon. Lady’s question. She raises an issue that is of great concern to many of our constituents.
The World Health Organisation is working with the Governments of the countries worst affected to lead the response to the Zika virus. We welcome the recommendations of the WHO emergency committee on Zika, and the UK Government are assessing our response. The hon. Lady will be aware that the UK has been at the forefront of global efforts to ensure that the WHO has the funding, expertise and systems to respond to emerging disease threats such as Zika. As the second-largest national funder of the WHO, the Department of Health met the UK’s £15 million commitment to WHO core funding in 2015, alongside political and technical support to strengthen the organisation and its preparedness. In addition, the Department for International Development made a discretionary contribution of £14.5 million in 2015. As part of the UK effort to strengthen global health security, DFID contributed an additional £6.2 million to the WHO’s contingency fund for emergencies, which can be used for the management of Zika.
In response to the hon. Lady’s question about the risk to the British public, the first thing to say is that the risk to the UK population from Zika remains extremely low. We have already taken a number of steps to ensure that the UK public are protected, but of course we are not complacent. In light of the WHO’s decision, we will review our approach both to action to mitigate the risk to the UK and to considering what additional support the UK could offer to the countries and regions affected. DFID is working with the Department of Health and colleagues across Government on our response at the highest level.
The Minister will be aware that money alone is not the issue. In the past four months alone, Brazil has recorded more than 4,000 cases of microcephaly—babies born with deformed small heads. The Minister will also be aware that the Olympic games will be in less than 200 days. More than 1 million tourists are expected to descend on Rio.
Does the Minister agree that research is a high priority? We urgently need proof of a causative link between the Zika infection and microcephaly, and then to know how the virus damages the brain of the growing foetus. Developing countries will need support for the mothers of the thousands of deformed babies to be able to take their family life forward. Does the Minister also agree that diagnostics, antiviral drugs and, above all, a Zika vaccine are essential?
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that research is very important. We do not know enough about this disease, particularly the links to microcephaly and the other consequences to which she alludes. The UK stands ready to play a full part in upgrading our knowledge. Specifically, we recently announced a £400,000 Newton Fund Zika research project between Glasgow University and Fiocruz in Pernambuco, the hotspot of the outbreak. Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine arrived in Recife last week. We are currently looking at what additional interventions are required to reduce the spread of the disease and its impact on developing countries, particularly countries where DFID is extremely active and where there may be a risk of crossover.