Martin Horwood MP writes…A Lib Dem vision for fighting infectious diseases

The world is an ever-smaller place.  Advances in transport and telecommunications have bridged enormous geographic divides.  With a click on my phone I can Skype a friend on the other side of the world, or step outside my office and find produce from around the globe for sale in the local supermarket.

Yet, for all the many advantages of globalisation for trade and tourism, there is another side of the coin.  It is not only holidaymakers that travel by air.

Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases.  Last year, it killed an estimated 1.5 million people.  In 1993 the World Health Organisation declared TB a ‘global health emergency’ since then over 40 million people have died from the disease.  It is airborne, infectious, and found in every country in the world.

In the UK, and indeed in much of the developed world, most people think that TB is no longer a threat.  Indeed, rates have fallen dramatically over the last century, and the disease has fallen off the radar.  Yet, any public health professional will tell you that TB is still a problem in many parts of the UK.  London is known as the TB capital of Western Europe.  Birmingham has even higher rates of the disease.  To complete the picture, the BCG, the TB vaccine that many of us received as children, offers negligible protection past the age of 15.

As with many bacterial infections TB is increasingly resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.  A lack of new drug development – no new drugs have entered first-line treatment since 1967 – coupled with poor health provision and inconsistent drug supply and created the perfect condition for a drug-resistant epidemic.  TB is the only major airborne drug-resistant infection.  If you’re unfortunate enough to breathe in a drug-resistant strain of TB and fall ill, the treatment regimen could take two years to complete.

Drug-resistance, or antimicrobial resistance (AMR), as it’s often known, is rising rapidly up the political agenda.  Last July, this government launched an independent review of AMR chaired by the renowned economist Jim O’Neill.  Today, new figures obtained from the review and launched by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global TB estimate that, if left ignored, drug-resistant TB could claim an additional 75 million lives over the next 35 years at a global economic cost of $16.7 trillion.

These figures highlight what the Ebola outbreak has already demonstrated: infectious diseases represent a significant threat to the health and wellbeing of people all around the world and without concerted action can gain a foothold frighteningly quickly.

Successfully tackling infectious diseases requires a range of interventions; health services need to be stronger and better resourced; new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines must be developed to treat, test and prevent infections; and health professionals need to be trained and deployed to take health into the community and break the cycle of transmission as early as possible.

That is why in government we will explore new ways of incentivising private and public sector research and development to overcome the lack of incentives to drive commercial sector development.  We will also invest in expanded healthcare programmes that take testing and treatment to people in remote or hard-to-reach communities.  We will invest in stronger, more robust, health surveillance systems to tackle drug-resistance before it is allowed to spread and we will champion the right of everyone to access high quality healthcare, regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, disability, or sexuality.

Infectious diseases impose a terrible social and economic burden on patients; reinforcing and strengthening persistent cycles of poverty and poor health.  But they also present a broader threat to global health security which makes prioritising them both morally the right thing to do, and in our own interests.  Which is why, if elected, Liberal Democrats will put the UK at the heart of a campaign to end HIV, TB and malaria in a generation.

* Martin Horwood is Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for the South West of England & Gibraltar. He is a member of the European Parliament’s Iran delegation. He is Borough & parish councillor for Leckhampton, Gloucestershire.

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  • Working within the Occupational Health field I would welcome more attention being paid to TB. I would question the statement that it offers negligible protection after age 15. My understanding is that it offers reasonable (although reduced) levels of protection until age 35 after which no reliable data are held. I guess it depends on the definition of negligible.

    This really should be reviewed in the “Green Book” as regards to healthcare workers as one element of Government should not be recommending vaccination if the efficacy is not clear.

    Perhaps considering a return to a nationwide program is an option??

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Mar '15 - 7:17pm

    Martin, pandemic diseases are one of the big global problems that I think we need to be tackling. Well done for looking into this.

  • Philip Thomas 24th Mar '15 - 9:10pm

    It is of course vital to the proper treatment of infectious disease that everyone in the population have access to healthcare: attempts to deny healthcare to any group of the population must be resisted, because disease does not distinguish between groups. It is no answer to say “well, we’ll treat people in group X for infectious diseases but not for other types of disease” because that means when someone in group X feels ill, they have to guess whether their disease is infectious before knowing whether they can get treatment for it.

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