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Global Fund: AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:24 pm on 4th July 2012.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 7:24 pm, 4th July 2012

My Lords, first, I very much welcome the number of speakers who have put their names down for this short debate, which I think speaks volumes for the importance of making progress in this area.

I speak as an enthusiastic supporter of the Global Fund. I saw it in its early stages, when Richard Feachem was director, and I pay tribute to all the pioneering work that was done then. The fund has already done vast good. It has an enormous canvas: HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Without exaggeration, it is one of the most ambitious health programmes that the world has ever seen. The lives of millions of people have been saved, but the bleak fact is that much, much more needs to be done. The challenge remains immense.

With HIV/AIDS, the world death toll is still 1.8 million a year, 30 or 40 years after the virus began its deadly sweep, first through sub-Saharan Africa and then through so much of the rest of the world. With TB, the latest figures show a death toll of 1.7 million, with the highest number of deaths in the Africa region. With malaria, there were an estimated 655,000 deaths in 2010, of which 91% were in Africa. Of course, these diseases do not fit into neat, separate boxes. Together, HIV and TB form a lethal combination, each speeding the other's progress.

There is no question of the size of the death toll, but the added tragedy is that we are not being held back by a lack of knowledge of what needs to be done or what measures are necessary to save lives. When I was Health Secretary, dealing with HIV at the beginning of the crisis, there were no drugs to prolong life. I remember visiting a hospital in San Francisco, where there was a large ward full of young men simply dying from AIDS, with nurses being able to do absolutely nothing. Of course, the same was true here in London. Today is the exact 30th anniversary of the death of Terrence Higgins, the first person in the UK to be publicly identified as dying from AIDS, who has given his name to one of Europe's most effective civil society organisations working in this field.

That was the 1980s, but today we have anti-retroviral drugs that are easy to take and able to ensure that a man or woman can live a long life. The means are there to tackle the disease, just as they are with TB and malaria. What is lacking in the world today are the resources that are necessary to take full advantage of the medical advances, and the political will to bring this about.

In its brief life, the Global Fund has done wonders. It has approved grants worth $22 billion for 150 countries. It has provided anti-retroviral therapy for an estimated 3 million people. It has detected and treated almost 8 million cases of TB between 2002 and today. It has enabled the treatment of 170 million cases of malaria. Of course, I acknowledge that there have been some problems in resources reaching the people for whom they were intended, although frankly these should not be exaggerated. When they have arisen, they have been tackled, and they continue to be tackled very effectively by the Global Fund and its excellent new general manager, Gabriel Jaramillo. The real characteristic is that money donated to the Global Fund has reached its target; that is not the problem.

The real problem lies with Governments. Some do not give anything at all and simply ignore the problem that is on their doorstep. I will give one example from the area I know best, HIV. One of the fastest growing epidemics in the world today is driven by injecting drugs. It is a problem in eastern Europe and many other countries. It is certainly fuelled by criminally imported drugs, but also by deadly home-made combinations. According to UNAIDS, only eight of every 100 people who inject drugs have regular access to sterile injecting equipment. Half the countries with epidemics centred on injecting drug users have no needle and syringe programmes at all. Yet all the evidence is that programmes such as clean needle exchanges work in reducing and almost eliminating infection. In Britain we started such a policy in 1986-87 and the result is that only 2% of new cases now come that way. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to underline the continuing support of the Government to this policy, given the comments that have been made outside this House.

That brings me on to a specific issue concerning the Global Fund. Ukraine, where I spent a week recently looking at the issues, has a massive problem of drug users injecting themselves. There are no government-run needle exchanges and no substitution programmes, but a great deal of discrimination and stigma. All prevention work is carried out by civil society organisations, notably the excellent International HIV/AIDS Alliance. It, in turn, is financed by the Global Fund. It has limits on its financial resources, so has decided to concentrate help on the poorest nations. We can see the reasoning behind that, but it means that help for poor, middle-income countries such as Ukraine will reduce and eventually be eliminated. The effect is to throw responsibility back on the Government of Ukraine, but frankly there is no sign whatever that they are ready to pick up the challenge and give that policy priority. We face the real prospect that the progress that has been made will be reversed.

That is the underlying fear in all three areas that we are debating tonight. Massive advances have been made by the Global Fund but the danger is that the potential to do more good and save more lives will be ignored as we walk on the other side of the road. In that respect, let me say this about the Government's response. Like the previous Government, the coalition has been a firm supporter of the Global Fund. We are the third biggest contributor and no one can doubt the commitment of DfID and the Secretary of State, Andrew Mitchell-I would expect nothing less from the MP for Sutton Coldfield. However, the general position is not remotely as encouraging. We are going through the most difficult period in the fund's history. At the end of last year it cancelled its 11th round of grant-making, which would have involved spending of $1.5 billion. It did that because of fears of inadequate funding. The result is that no new grants will be approved until 2014, although existing contracts will obviously be continued.

That position has caused dismay among civil society organisations. Again, it needs to be stressed just how much is done in all these areas by non-government organisations. They have filled a gap and without their work millions of lives would have been lost. In these circumstances what can this country do? The answer is that we should seek to take a lead to give an example that others might follow. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he is prepared to increase very substantially the Government's contribution to the Global Fund for 2013 to 2015 by up to double-in other words, double the current amount of £384 million. That is a very significant promise that I wholeheartedly welcome. I urge that the occasion should now be found to make the pledge a firm commitment. By itself, the increased contribution will save lives but the hope must be that an announcement of that kind will unlock other funds from around the world. The Global Fund has already shown what it can achieve. The aim must now be to allow it to achieve its full potential.