Sierra Leone — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:55 pm on 29th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench 7:55 pm, 29th June 2015

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Hayman for having secured this debate on the catastrophic epidemic and its results in Sierra Leone, one of the countries in west Africa affected by the Ebola virus. With cases of this very infectious condition still appearing, it is clear that the epidemic is far from over. The efforts to end it must not be relaxed.

The medical personnel who have been helping in Sierra Leone rightly have the admiration of many people. It was good news that the nurses who developed Ebola and came back to be treated in the special unit at the Royal Free Hospital recovered, but I take this opportunity to ask how, with all the training that they had had, they became infected. It is important that that is known so that others learn from it. Prevention of infection when working first hand with infected people is vital.

A total of 869 confirmed cases of health worker infections have been reported from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since the start of the outbreak, with 507 reported deaths. It is said that the initial response by WHO regional staff was slow and poorly targeted, and it has since been heavily criticised as one of the contributory factors in the early expansion stage of the epidemic. It is notable that the WHO Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which had such a pivotal role during the SARS outbreak, was mobilised at a late stage after other groups, including Médecins Sans Frontières, had been in action for weeks or months. Even at that point, the WHO concentrated on advisory support rather than mobilising logistics, clinical and diagnostic support. Several UK agencies, including Public Health England and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, were among the European groups to get specialist manpower on the ground at an early stage.

I cannot stress enough how important microbiology and pathology are in combating infection. I think that sometimes the value of their contribution to tackling epidemics is not highlighted enough. At the latest G7 summit, responding to lessons from the Ebola crisis, G7 leaders pledged to help strengthen the world’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to disease outbreaks. I quote from the Society for General Microbiology:

“Emerging zoonitic diseases … pose an increasing global health and economic security threat. Recent outbreaks include Ebola, H1N1 swine flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome … An interdisciplinary ‘One Health’ approach involving human and animal science, health and policy is vital for mitigating this threat”.

There is a huge need for public health improvements. Acute infectious diseases remain the leading causes of mortality, and children under the age of five are disproportionately affected. Since the Ebola outbreak, the impact of malaria has almost certainly increased owing to reduced and/or delayed access to treatment, leading to increased case fatality rates. There is only one paediatrician in the whole of Sierra Leone. Maternal morbidity rates are very high. Over 70% of the population live in poverty and, therefore, the majority of the population’s basic need for food and water is not satisfied. Half the population in Moyamba drink from unsafe water sources. There are few areas with adequate sanitary facilities. One-third of children are stunted; malnutrition is common and under-recognised. During the Ebola outbreak, when the need has been great, the supply of supplementary food has stopped. Thus, unmet nutritional needs of the population have increased.

The current Ebola outbreak is reducing and efforts will continue towards its elimination from the country, but the population will remain at risk of future outbreaks. There is a desperate need for ongoing education. Changes in behaviour such as hand-washing and safe burial practices reduce this risk but the population risk profile has not dramatically altered. There is still a high consumption of bushmeat in Moyamba and other rural areas of the country. I congratulate BBC Media Action on its programme “Kick Ebola out of Sierra Leone”, which it is producing in partnership with Cotton Tree News, broadcast on 40 radio stations across the 14 districts. In recent months, the programme has evolved to focus on concerns about complacency.

I hope the Government will give money to this very poor country. There are successful, rich countries which are getting our support: why not give it to these countries in west Africa?