Sierra Leone — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:43 pm on 29th June 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Crossbench 7:43 pm, 29th June 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for securing this debate. She has already said much of what I might have said, so I will deviate from what I was going to say and pick up some of her points and hope to enlarge on them.

One lesson we must learn from the Ebola crisis is that whatever we did in the past to support poor countries to build their health systems and their societies has not worked, otherwise this would not have happened. I repeat the noble Lady’s commendation of the volunteers who went from this country and others, at great risk to their own health, when the death rate from this infection was 90%. They took that risk and they need to be commended on it. Mostly, they were young people.

The noble Lady also mentioned the WHO response, which was initially poor. It did not have enough experts on the ground to do the necessary surveillance. It was slow in declaring an international emergency. It may have been preoccupied with the damage that the crisis might do the economies of these countries, rather than declaring an emergency, which would have protected citizens. Yes, the death toll could have been higher if it had not been for the international response, including the United Kingdom’s, which was immediate. None the less, the WHO failed in that, so the first thing we need to ask the Minister is, what are the Government now doing to work with the WHO and the expertise that we have in the United Kingdom and countries such as the USA to help the WHO build in future a more resilient system of surveillance?

The noble Lady’s next remarks were about the health system. The health system in that country, which was fragile to start with, has now collapsed. She referred to maternity services. The maternal mortality rate in Sierra Leone is 1,100 per 100,000. Last year 1,200 women died during childbirth. Neonatal mortality is 49 per 1,000. Under-5 infant deaths are running at 160 per 1,000. The maternal mortality rate has gone up by 20% due to the complete collapse of emergency obstetric services. She mentioned the Centre for Maternal and Newborn Health at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine which is helping to build assistance and which needs to be supported. So does the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which is trying to build services and train doctors, who are now very few—200 health workers have died, some of them doctors, and others have left the country. We need to support these organisations.

Health systems are linked to the economy of the country. Sierra Leone spends $25 million on health and $32 million on education. It gives away 10 times the health budget in tax incentives to overseas companies, some of them British. These are dollars that it could use for building health and education systems, but it does not have it. Is it not perverse that while people die in these poor countries, companies from richer countries seek tax incentives? Should not part of our help in assisting Sierra Leone now to recover include some advice and assistance in the ability to use its own domestic resources, including help with tax policies, so that the country can have better financial resources to support its health system?

The noble Baroness referred to the fact that more deaths are now occurring because of the collapse in the health system due to tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS. Referrals to doctors and the health system have completely failed. Fewer than 20% of pregnant women now seek help during pregnancy or attend antenatal classes. If this is not stopped, maternal mortality will keep rising, as will stillbirths and neonatal deaths. I ask the Minister about our response to the WHO, our help in building health systems and our help in building the economy of Sierra Leone.