Millions of people in the world’s poorest countries are at risk of “neglected tropical diseases” with tens of thousands “likely to die” as a result of the government’s multi-billion pound aid budget cut, the World Health Organisation has warned.
In a stark intervention, the UN body criticised the withdrawal of “critical funding” to prevent diseases which “kill, blind, disfigure and maim, causing considerable and largely untold suffering to millions of people worldwide”.
It comes amid intense pressure on Boris Johnson’s government over the decision to slash overseas aid spending from 0.7 per of gross national income to 0.5 — amounting to around £4 billion — and criticism from dozens of Conservative MPs.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, who has been leading a rebellion, has previously suggested “far more” than 100,000 avoidable deaths “will take place as a result of these terrible cuts”.
The government has so far refused to give MPs a vote in the Commons on the cut, which ministers insist is a temporary measure during the economic turmoil created by the Covid-19 pandemic, but have declined to say when the budget will be restored.
In a written submission to the Commons International Development Committee, which is probing the impact of the cuts, the WHO said many neglected tropical disease interventions supported by UK involved large-scale medicine distribution.
The organisation said hundreds of millions of medicinal tablets used to treat the diseases will be destroyed due to the cut, with the UK previously providing “critical funding” to 19 countries under the Accelerating the Sustainable Control and Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (ASCEND) programme.
WHO’s submission said: “The withdrawal of UK funding makes it likely that an estimated in-country inventory of 276,802,004 tablets donated by British and international pharmaceutical companies will expire and need to be incinerated, rather than being distributed to willing recipients to prevent and eliminate disease,” they said.
“No obvious alternative source of funding exists to fill the funding gaps that will be left by the exit of ASCEND.”
Citing achievements of the programme, WHO said it had supported interventions to prevent the transmission of “river blindness” in 104 million people, and efforts to “aimed at permanently stopping transmission of Guinea worm”.
It added: “Case finding and treatment of individuals with visceral leishmaniasis, an infectious disease acquired through the bite of infected sandflies that is fatal without timely diagnosis and specific treatments; as a consequence of the aid cuts, 20,000-30,000 individuals are likely to die, with the uncertainty in that estimate related to expected recent increase in disease incidence due to Covid-19 related programmatic delays”.
The Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The seismic impact of the pandemic forced the tough decision to temporarily reduce the aid budget and exit some programmes, including the Accelerating the Sustainable Control and Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases programme.
“We will still spend more than £10bn this year to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health, including £1.3bn on global health. We will focus on the UK’s position at the forefront of the international response to Covid-19, and will continue to support programmes in countries affected by neglected tropical diseases.”