I have heard that said, and I will go on to refer to the importance of reaching the hard-to-reach groups. There is evidence that that is the way to get, to put it crudely, more bang for our buck on the vaccinations spend, because the threat of outbreaks of killer diseases is higher for some of those isolated communities and families than for those elsewhere. My hon. Friend makes a useful point early in the debate.
For the last decade and more, there has been a political consensus that we should spend 0.7% of our GDP on international aid and assistance. At times in recent years, it has felt as though that consensus is being tested; certainly, the all-out assault on our aid budget in some sections of the popular press has had a corrosive effect, at least among some members of the general public. The discussion in the popular press is overwhelmingly dominated by questions over the headline funding commitment and the suggestion, repeated over and over again, that aid money could be better spent on domestic priorities.
While those of us who support Britain’s role as a leader in effective overseas development should never tire of restating the basic case for aid, we should also do more to draw attention to specific examples where UK aid has helped to achieve profound economic and social improvements in some of the poorest countries on earth. One area of British leadership and expertise that has received too little attention is the funding, development and distribution of vaccines against killer diseases, and I will use this short debate to highlight that. Diseases are not just an unpleasant inconvenience for a country; they ravage a nation’s economy, directly affect its ability to grow and hold back economic development. Diseases keep poor countries poor.
It was a British doctor, Edward Jenner, who pioneered the first vaccine at the end of the 18th century, when he used pus drawn from a cowpox boil to inoculate a boy against the killer smallpox—a story that many of us will have learned about in our schooldays. More than 200 years on, British science and medical research still lead the world in improving the health of people living in extreme poverty. The eradication of smallpox was one of the great achievements of immunology in the 20th century. Smallpox was once one of the world’s most feared and deadliest diseases. Just 60 years ago, it was endemic in dozens of countries containing around 60% of the world’s population. By 1980, it had been eradicated, following a concerted international effort.
More recently, polio, once epidemic, has almost been eradicated too, due to concerted vaccination efforts worldwide. It has been reduced by 99% globally and the number of polio-endemic countries has decreased from 125 in 1983 to just three today. That is the culmination of a remarkable international effort that brought together Governments, NGOs and many private individuals. Rotary clubs around the world, for example, took this up as a campaign and raised enormous sums toward the effort through community-led fundraising. Full eradication of the disease is within reach, showing again what can be achieved when we harness political will, public support, large-scale resources and world-class science. I believe that that formula is the key to so many of the interventions that will make the world a better place in the years ahead.
British medical and scientific research remain world leaders in the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases. We are part of numerous initiatives and alliances, recognising that multilateral co-ordination and use of public resources to leverage in private sector funding provide a strong platform for this work at a global level. I am sure the Minister will update us on some of those initiatives in his winding-up speech.