Vaccinations: Developing Countries — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:31 pm on 13th June 2018.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt 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) 3:31 pm, 13th June 2018

I cannot give my right hon. Friend the figures, but let me say two things. First, in some areas, there has been a reaction against vaccination. Earlier this year, two vaccinators in Pakistan, a mother and a daughter, were killed. The Pakistan Government have worked with others to try to change the nature of the programmes, but it is a reminder of how brave some health workers have to be. In some cases there is a supposed religious objection to vaccination, and in others it can be more direct.

Secondly, yesterday, in another context, I mentioned in the House the issues that are being faced in Yemen due to the de facto Houthi authorities in the north of Yemen, which have refused permission to transport vaccines into Sana’a. That has meant that 860,000 people in the north have not received vaccines, while hundreds of thousands of people in the south have benefited from the campaign. The Department is working closely with the World Health Organisation and through diplomatic channels to help unblock the use of vaccines in Yemen, particularly in Houthi-controlled areas.

In some areas, the cause is conflict; in others, it is an ideological response or a false fear that has been spread. In some areas, vaccinators are somehow seen as being connected to the west, and it is easy for false stories to spread. All those things need to be combated, and perhaps one way to do that is to ensure that there are more local programmes, because it is essential that the effort of vaccination continues, as all hon. Members have said.

In particular, we cannot afford to lose the chance to eradicate polio, and we have to be very careful. The rise in measles may be connected to some false stories about vaccines. There appears to be a market for people who want to spread those false stories, not only in developing countries but in places such as the United States. Fake news has to be combated. The outstanding research in this area makes it very clear that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh any potential medical consequences, of which there are some from time to time, but in a very tiny proportion of people. It is essential that the public grasp that.

Let me return to other remarks by hon. Members. We have talked about how we can ensure that future research is done in areas where the economic benefits of a vaccine may be questionable and about what help we can give. It is not an easy issue to tackle or to be absolutely certain about, because the market for specific diseases is highly variable and pharmaceutical companies need to know that they will make a sufficient profit for a new market initiative to be possible.

However, things can be done to assist with that. GAVI’s advance market commitment, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston mentioned, has done significantly well, and we have provided finance to support it. It now produces 150 million doses of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine annually at a price of $2.95, which is significantly lower than market price. GAVI also provided £390 million as an advance purchase commitment for the Ebola vaccine, which enabled Merck to make 300,000 doses available. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that vaccine was implemented 13 days after the Ebola outbreak was announced.

There are ways in which the international community can help to ensure that some of the costs are borne collectively, but it is not always an easy process, so there will always be issues about how to develop the vaccine and how to pay for it. The Government are well engaged in dealing with those.

I will conclude and offer my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire a chance to respond. As well as the support for GAVI, the UK invests in vaccines in developing countries in a range of ways. We are a leading supporter of eradicating polio, as has been mentioned. That investment brings economic returns of many times the magnitude, and a stronger global economy that will benefit us all.

Hon. Members also mentioned Ebola. The handling of the recent outbreak contrasts with that of the previous one. The WHO and the Department supported the development of two Ebola candidate vaccines during the 2014 outbreak that have been brought through into the most recent one. These are some examples of how we—through DFID, GAVI and bilateral programmes to strengthen and sustain health systems—have been able to put vaccination at the very top of the agenda, as the most cost-effective way of dealing with health problems.

I conclude by acknowledging the dedication and hard work of all the health workers around the world, who often put their lives at risk to deliver vaccines to children, even in the hardest-to-reach places; by saying that I am very proud of the United Kingdom’s investment in vaccines in developing countries, and I say that on behalf of us all as this is a non-party issue; and by saying that saving the lives of children and improving the lives of families in some of the world’s poorest countries is simply the right thing to do.

Finally, I will say that the exchange between the hon. Member for Strangford and my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire about the inspiration that can be gathered for this work and the promotion of it through schools, so that people are more aware of what we can do, is the way that we should finish today. Sometimes this place has to deal with difficult subjects that occasionally colleagues fall out over—not this one. This is something we can agree on and we can all use our own influence to ensure that a new generation of young scientists, young doctors and young health professionals are inspired to work, not only in this country but throughout the world, knowing how important vaccination will continue to be.