The mosquito in its various forms is responsible for transmitting a number of the world’s most harmful infectious diseases, from malaria to yellow fever, Dengue fever and the Zika virus.
Ever since Sir Ronald Ross confirmed the transmission of malaria by the mosquito, the UK has been at the forefront of research into the prevention, control and treatment of vector-borne diseases. Let me give just two current examples: the world’s first licensed malaria vaccine (RTS,S) developed by GSK, should be deployed shortly, while at Dundee University scientists are working on a drug that has the potential both to protect people from malaria and treat it with a single dose.
The history of the foundation of our two major schools of tropical medicine tells an important story. The Liverpool School was set up by a private ship-owner, Sir Alfred Lewis Jones, and others, who saw the calamitous effect of infectious diseases as they did business around the word. The London School was established as a public institution. Since then, advances made in tackling these diseases have been most rapid when the private, charitable and public sectors have worked together.
At the beginning of this month, on an International Development Committee visit to Nigeria, we learned how effective such co-operation can be. More than one hundred million treatments for seven tropical diseases (trachoma, the three soil-transmitted helminths/ worms, lymphatic filariasis, river blindness and bilharzia) have been provided free of charge by pharmaceutical companies. They are then administered to at least 20 million people through Nigerian State governments supported by the charity Sightsavers. This work is made possible by funds from the UK taxpayer at a cost of less than 15p per treatment.
Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson’s recent announcement of a “rapid response” call for research applications aimed at tackling the Zika virus continues in this tradition of UK partnership and leadership in fighting tropical diseases. It was the first such commitment from the Global Challenges Fund, set up by the Prime Minister and Chancellor at the end of 2015. The research will look at “the nature of the Zika virus, its transmission and the potential links to neurological conditions, including microcephaly”.
This proactive approach makes sense. It enables our research scientists to put their talents to work on behalf of the millions of people who will possibly be affected by Zika in some way. The UK will show that we consider the world’s health challenges to be ours as well, and I hope that this will inspire more young people to view a career in scientific research as of great value to humanity.
Our nation’s history has given us a strong position in research into tropical and infectious diseases. It’s a gift we can continue to offer to the world, and an asset that brings opportunities to our scientists while also attracting some of the best researchers to our shores. Let’s ensure that we maintain that asset through a continuation of the public, charitable and private investment which has served us well over 120 years.
Jeremy Lefroy is chair of the Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases APPG, a Trustee of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Conservative MP for Stafford