On 2 May, a General Debate on ‘World Immunisation Week’ was held in the House of Commons chamber. Thank you to all the MPs who spoke in the debate including: Secretary of State Rory Stewart MP, Minister Harriet Baldwin MP, Dan Carden MP, Dr Philippa Whitford MP, Bambos Charalambous MP, Alistair Burt MP, Jeremy Lefroy MP, Thangam Debbonaire MP, Paul Sweeney MP, Chris Elmore MP and Chris Bryant MP.

The lively debate was opened by the new Secretary of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, who began:

“It is an enormous privilege and pleasure to stand here for the first time as Secretary of State, but it is a deeper pleasure to be in the Chamber talking about immunisation. Immunisation is an extraordinary story that illustrates why international development really matters, how complicated it can be, in public policy terms, to pull off, and how important it is to be able to communicate to the public and others how, in the end, preventing the terrible loss of a child from polio can be connected right the way back to scientific research, businesses, international co-operation, and very brave doctors and health workers on the ground.”

The Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Dan Carden, went on to speak of his own personal connection to vaccinations and why he is committed to seeing the eradication of polio globally:

“Vaccines are, quite simply, a matter of life and death. Between 2 million and 3 million lives are saved every year thanks to immunisations, and in recent decades they have drastically reduced suffering caused by infectious diseases that were once commonplace. Smallpox was completely eradicated in 1977 through a global vaccination programme, and the world is now close to eradicating a second disease, polio. My own grandad contracted polio and lived with it for 27 years, and when I was growing up I heard a great deal about the impact of a disease that paralyses the people affected by it. I pay tribute to one of my constituents, Andy Gilliland, a polio survivor who has lobbied alongside the One Last Push campaigners; I am delighted to have become one of the campaign’s polio champions since he lobbied me.”

Dan Carden also called for the Secretary of State to listen to the APPG’s recommendation that Gavi uses a variety of indicators to inform transition that go beyond GNI per capita alone, in order to ensure children in middle-income countries are not left behind.

Next we heard from Alistair Burt, a previous DFID Minister with responsibility for the global health portfolio, who thanked the APPG and APPG Chair Dr Philippa Whitford for their contribution on this important topic. Alistair Burt urged the new Secretary of State to give big in Gavi’s upcomign replenishment:

“Speaking from the Back Benches, I can say to the Secretary of State that I am sure we will sort it out and I hope he will be really, really generous. He can be absolutely sure that I will be on his tail if we do not make a serious commitment to Gavi, because it really delivers. Seth Berkley delivers for us, and the visit to Bognor Regis in the past few months when he saw the work being done here was really important. I hope the Secretary of State will bear that in mind.”

He also importantly noted:

“Immunisation is good. It works and it has proved itself. It is one of the building blocks of world strength and world health and we lose it at our peril. Recent years have taught us that, just because we think something has become part of mainstream culture and is accepted by everyone, it does not mean that the argument does not have to be made over and again. We have lost valuable things in recent years by not vigorously making the argument for them because we thought everyone understood the argument—I will not go into detail—but we are not going to lose the argument on health and immunisation. If we do so, we would put ourselves at risk. We know it is safe and we know it is good, so let us not leave it to others to make the argument. Let us make the argument ourselves. I know that I can completely count on the Secretary of State and the Minister of State to do that job, and I know that I can rely on this House to do the same.”

APPG Chair Dr Philippa Whitford followed:

“The last 10 years, which are being called the decade of vaccines, have seen at least 20 million lives saved, and vaccination is the single most successful health intervention ever. People will say that that is clean water, a civil engineering intervention that does bring health, but if we look at the returns and the lives saved, vaccination is even more successful.”

Dr Whitford importantly noted:

“On access, as the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, across the world we are patting ourselves on the back for the fact that in poorer countries 85% of children are getting the basic vaccines. However, we have stalled—the figure is not climbing and has been at that level for a long time. When the all-party group produced its report on vaccination for all in the developing world, I was shocked to find that only 7% of children in such countries are given the full World Health Organisation 11 vaccines.

As global players prepare their next strategies and funding plans, and with the eradication of polio on the horizon, this is a time to step back and think about how we are going to help, across the world, to eliminate more of these diseases. We need to aim for the fully immunised child. We need to come up with strategies to deal with remote areas and warzones, and research is a crucial part of that.”

Bambos Charalambous gave an impassioned speech next, asking the Givernment to ensure health systems are strengthened and polio transition is not forgotten:

“The UK must continue to prioritise polio transition as an issue in order to ensure not only a polio-free world, but that it is working with countries to help them understand and plan for a transition away from polio funding. I ask the Government to redouble their commitments to vaccinations and to make ambitious commitments to financing Gavi and the GPEI in their upcoming replenishments over the next 18 months and remain a leader in the global immunisation efforts.

I also ask the Government to ensure that the focus of global immunisation efforts is on reaching those left behind who currently receive no vaccines at all. We need to ensure that all investment in immunisations is focused on strengthening immunisation systems so that every child receives the full schedule of recommended vaccines.

Great progress has been made in eradicating infectious diseases, but we must not be complacent and we need to ensure that we keep our eye on the ball and do all we can to help those in the hardest to reach and poorest areas to get the vaccinations that they need.”

Thangam Debbonaire spoke on the urgent need to use vaccines to tackle antimicrobial resistance:

“If left unchecked antimicrobial resistance will lead to 10 million deaths a year by 2050. Immunisation is a vital intervention against AMR. AMR happens when microbes adapt to become resistant to antimicrobial drugs. Once resistance occurs in pathogens—the microbes capable of causing disease—treatment options become very limited and lives are then put at risk. There are already about 700,000 deaths a year caused by infections that are resistant to treatment.

“Vaccines offer sustained long-term and, in some cases, lifelong—although that depends on the pathogen—protection from infection. Antibiotics do not. Far too many people have in their heads the idea that when they get sick, they will get an antibiotic and that is all that needs to happen. Many vaccines still effective today were introduced many years ago, but the same cannot be said for antibiotics. If there are high rates of mutation, ​we will need new vaccines.

We therefore need to think about the money and investment that we put into developing vaccinations, as well as into maintaining the use of proven ones. The O’Neill review also identified some really clear contexts in which immunisation can reduce AMR, including vaccinating against hospital-acquired infections, and discussed the importance of investment in research for the early stages, when commercial viability may be some years or decades off. The effects of vaccines on AMR are: preventing disease and death; reducing progression and the severity of disease; reducing transmission; and reducing antibiotic use, and therefore the pressure of resistance.”

Minister Harriet Baldwin closed the debate by thanking members for their contribution, and thanked Dr Whitford for her chairmanship of the APPG. She concluded:

“We are talking about a public good—perhaps in no other area of human endeavour is there more of a public good—and it is right that we strengthen the public response and public health systems with regard to this work. Every £1 we spend in this area leads to a £16 benefit, in terms of lives saved, time saved and people’s ability to continue to contribute to society. It is remarkably good value for money. As well as strengthening public health systems, we must strengthen our worldwide economy, and that needs to happen through a combination of public services and a successful and thriving private sector. We need both if we are to deliver on this global challenge.”