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Jane Ellison - Department of Health

I would like to update the House following the declaration earlier this week of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in relation to the Zika virus and its possible link with microcephaly.

The Government is determined to support the international community in responding to the Zika virus and to ensure that UK citizens travelling to Zika-affected areas are properly protected.

On Monday 1 February, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, declared that recent clusters of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders in Brazil and in French Polynesia in 2014 are strongly suspected to be linked to the Zika virus. The Government fully supports Dr Chans call for international action and will continue to work with the WHO to ensure it has the resources required to respond effectively.

The UK is the second largest donor to the WHO, contributing 29.5 million in 2015 and a further 6.2 million to the WHOs contingencies fund for emergencies. The UK is also among the first countries in the world to contribute significant funding to support research into the Zika virus and will play a crucial role in helping to develop vaccines, diagnostics and treatments. Already 1 million has been provided from the UKs Medical Research Council to fund Zika-related research. Finance has also been provided through the UKs Newton Fund to a joint research project between the University of Glasgow and Fiocruz, a leading biomedical centre in Brazil. The UK Vaccine Network will launch a funding call at the end of February 2016 to support the development of vaccines for some of the worlds most prevalent diseases, including Zika. The Network is a part of the wider 1 billion Ross Fund, announced in December 2015, which includes over 188 million for development of vaccines and diagnostic tests for diseases with epidemic potential.

Domestically, Public Health England (PHE) has advised that the risk to the UK population from Zika remains extremely low. Aedes aegypti is the primary type of mosquito which transmits the virus, and is extremely unlikely to be able to establish itself in the UK as the temperature is not consistently high enough for these mosquitos to breed. PHE have issued updated travel advice with guidance on minimising the risk of catching Zika by taking scrupulous measures to avoid insect bites. Specific advice has also been published for women who are pregnant (or planning to be) to seek advice from a health professional before travel, to consider avoiding travel to areas where Zika outbreaks are ongoing, or if travel is unavoidable, to take stringent insect bite avoidance measures. PHE has further provided updated guidance for healthcare professionals on the management of any symptomatic patients returning from affected countries. The guidance is accessible online and has been cascaded directly from PHE to healthcare professionals as well as via professional bodies, including the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the Royal College of General Practitioners.

The Government is currently in discussion with airlines to ensure that they follow WHO Europe advice that disinsection should take place on all flights that travel to the UK from countries with confirmed active transmission of Zika virus by mosquitoes. This is a highly precautionary measure to protect passengers in transit, and will be reviewed as further evidence about the virus emerges. Disinsection involves spraying an aerosol insecticide inside aircraft either before or during the flight and already occurs on the great majority of flights from the region as a precaution against malaria. This will offer additional highly precautionary protection to those on the flight as well as helping to mitigate the extremely low risk of a mosquito surviving in the UK for a short period of time and transmitting the disease.

I can also confirm that NHS Blood and Transplant have introduced a precautionary deferral period for those returning from countries where the Zika virus is endemic. All returning travellers are being deferred from donating for 28 days.

The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, requested a Scientific Advisory Group to consider the risk Zika poses to the UK and what action can be taken to ensure the UK is as protected as possible. This was co-chaired by the Governments Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, and the Department of Healths new Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Chris Whitty. Experts will continue to review new evidence as it emerges.


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