Ebola Response Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 1:30 pm, 20th November 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the current outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and how the UK Government are continuing to support the response and preparedness activities in neighbouring countries.

Miraculously, I have put on a different hat. Since the last update to the House on 10 October by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, the number of confirmed Ebola cases in this outbreak has continued to rise. As of 18 November, there were 326 confirmed cases and a further 47 probable cases, making this Ebola outbreak the biggest in the history of the DRC.

The DRC Government are leading the response with the support of the World Health Organisation. The DRC Government issued a revised response plan in late October, which projected that the outbreak would be contained and declared over by the end of January 2019. However, it is now clear that that will take several more months to achieve.

The WHO judges that ending the outbreak could take a further six months, under a best-case scenario. That reflects the very challenging operating environment in eastern DRC, which is a heavily populated area affected by insecurity. For example, last weekend an attack by armed groups on a MONUSCO base was close to where a vaccination team were staying. Thankfully, none of the Ebola responders was injured, but they were moved to Goma for a short period and vaccination activities had to be paused for a day.

The scale of the response is also challenging. In addition to the 373 confirmed and probable cases, the DRC Government, supported by WHO and other implementing partners, is trying to trace some 4,400 contacts on a daily basis.

However, there is some encouraging news. The response is enabling faster detection of cases, laboratory diagnosis and monitoring of the spread of the disease. The WHO-led support is improving Government medical facilities and their capacity to manage patients and treat them safely. That includes vaccination of health workers, provision of personal protection equipment, and advice on safe practices for dealing with suspect and confirmed cases. Part of the response involves raising awareness of the disease within local communities and putting in place measures to prevent cross-border spread. So far, 110 people have recovered.

The UK responded quickly to support the international response as the second largest donor to the strategic response plan, as well as deploying epidemiological experts to support the WHO response on the ground. UK support has helped to improve leadership and co-ordination, surveillance, infection prevention control and preparedness measures.

In view of recent developments, we have increased our support for the response and preparedness activities in DRC and neighbouring countries. Our funding will support a range of activities including surveillance, vaccinations, infection prevention and control, community engagement and safe and dignified burials.

In addition, the UK is supporting neighbouring countries to prepare to tackle the disease should it spread, by funding key UN posts in Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan to ensure they are as prepared as possible. We are applying the lessons of previous experience in tackling Ebola. An experimental vaccine, the development of which was supported by UK aid following the west Africa outbreak, is being given to frontline health workers and contacts of confirmed cases. In the DRC, over 31,000 people, more than 10,000 of whom are health workers, have already been vaccinated during this outbreak. The UK is also supporting training in preparation for clinical trials of several of the new therapeutic drugs for Ebola.

The UK Government are also drawing on all available scientific data about the latest outbreak. We will continue to liaise closely with WHO and others to ensure that the available scientific evidence is reflected in scenario planning. An international Ebola preparedness and co-ordination meeting is due to take place in Goma shortly, which will be attended by Ministers from the DRC and Uganda, to discuss cross-border co-ordination.

So far, the UK has contributed £25 million to the Ebola response. This is supporting WHO to work on screening, surveillance and preparedness, not only in the DRC but in neighbouring countries. Of this, some £20 million is from the crisis reserve of the Department for International Development, and £5 million is from the country budget for Uganda. When I visited Uganda last month, I saw how UK aid is helping the Uganda national taskforce to be ready to deal with Ebola, as needed.

It is clear that the response will require a sustained effort over time and additional resources. The UK Government stand ready to provide additional assistance. Therefore, we have agreed a further £20 million from our central crisis reserve in 2018-19, to support Ebola responses in the affected region.

I am sure that my colleagues in the House will recognise the risk that Ebola responders face. The DRC Government have asked donors not to publicise figures for specific activities, to avoid putting implementing partners at risk from criminal elements. I hope that the House and members of the press will respect the need for discretion about this issue. Public Health England assesses the risk to the UK of this outbreak as negligible to very low. It will continue to monitor and assess the outbreak closely. Should that risk change, the UK Government remain at full readiness to respond, and I commend this statement to the House.