Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Noble or what?

The Department for International Development (DfID) is the only Government Department that has not had its budget cut, in the latest round of cost-cutting measures. There is always a furious debate over the subject of International Aid, with some questioning why we should spend billions of pounds on others, when our own country is being asked to make so many personal sacrifices.

I don't have too much problem with the principle of International Aid, as I don't think that we should be parochial over this and ignore the depth of need across the world. I agree with the International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell when he says that such aid is 'morally right' and shows 'compassion' for others. However, I sometimes have to question whether we are often just providing a sticking plaster to a problem, rather than dealing with the cause of the wound.

Over the last few months, the DfID has been examining how best to spend its £7.8 billion budget (which is set to increase by around 37% over the next four years). They have decided to stop direct aid to sixteen countries, two of which are Russia and China - it came as a bit of a surprise to me to see that we sent aid there anyway. Aid to India will stay at the current level (around £295 million); this is in spite of major questions being asked as to why we support a country whose economy is growing at nearly 10% a year. Substantial increases in aid will be given to Pakistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Orla Guerin, BBC News says that "UK aid to Pakistan could more than double, reaching £446 million a year under plans announced by Andrew Mitchell". The UK has ambitious plans for education in Pakistan. It aims to supply 6 million text books, train 90,000 teachers, and get an extra 4 million children into school over the next four years (currently over 40% of children under 9 don't go to school). In addition, the aim is to save the lives of 110,000 children by expanding community health services; prevent 3,600 mothers dying in childbirth, and get another 2 million people to vote in the next general election. I applaud these targets, but they are down as UK aims; where is the Pakistan Government in all of this? Are they on board for the long haul, or are they just letting the UK get on with it? It's all very well having a plan for the next four years, but what about in 10 or 20 years time? By all means train 90,000 teachers, but will the country's infrastructure be able to pay them, and to train the succeeding generations? By all means expand the community health services, but will Pakistan carry on with these services when UK funding comes to an end? Short term solutions make great headlines, and undoubtedly achieves success, but what of the long term view? Or perhaps in political terms that doesn't matter, as it will be somebody else's problem. And what I say for Pakistan can be said for every other country that is a recipient of UK International Aid. Let me repeat, I'm for aid, but it has to be part of a bigger, longer term picture.

Still on the subject of International Aid, it was announced two days ago that Countries as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have pledged £2.6 billion to help vaccinate children against preventable diseases.

This included £814 million from the UK, on top of the £680 million already committed, and about £617 million from the Gates Foundation. At the conference to discuss the way forward, David Cameron said, "Today we come together because we have the chance to save another four million lives". He said that the idea of children dying from pneumonia and diarrhoea should be 'unthinkable' in 2011. Two million under-fives die from pneumonia alone each year despite the existence of a vaccine to protect them. It is estimated that three times as many children aged under five die from pneumonia and diarrhoea than from malaria and HIV/Aids combined, despite new vaccines being available, that unfortunately many developing countries cannot afford. Bill Gates said, "For the first time in history, children in developing countries will receive the same vaccines against diarrhoea and pneumonia as children in rich countries".

Now, all this sounds like noble philanthropic work, so what possible problem can I have with it. Look, no one will be happier than me if four million lives are saved, but my problem is still with the longer term.

Leaving aside Bill Gates' alleged views on vaccines and population control (which I may return to in another Blog, after I've consulted my lawyer), there are two areas that should be questioned.

One is the historic role of drugs companies. Following the vaccine programme conference, major drugs companies have agreed to sell a vaccine for diarrhoea disease at cost price. But there has been concerns over the years about the content of some vaccines, particularly those sold to the developing world. Now, I'm no pharmacist, so I can only read reports and try and make up my own mind. F. William Engdahl, wrote a study on 'vaccines to reduce population', where he researched in depth the effects of certain vaccines on children and adults. He said, "The pharmaceutical vaccine makers do not speak about the enormous health damage from infant vaccination, including autism and numerous neuro-muscular deformities that have been traced back to the toxic adjuvants and preservatives used in most vaccines. Many vaccines, especially multi-dose vaccines that are more cheaply made for sale to the Third World, contain something called Thimerosal, a compound containing some 50% mercury, used as a preservative". To be balanced, many others disagree about one possible effect being autism.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, alerted the public about the possible health effects associated with thimerosal-containing vaccines. Any medical journal will tell you of the dangers arising from the cumulative effects of ingesting mercury. How can we be sure what is in a vaccine? And in the rush to get mass vaccination programmes started, how can we be sure that vaccines given or sold to the developing world have been fully tested, authorised and are safe? I'm still convinced that we take too much on blind faith, and that more reassurance is needed that Governments, the World Health Organisation and pharmaceutical companies are not dumping toxins on the Third World. I know that I may sound like a conspiracy theorist, but there are genuine questions that need to be asked.

The last question I have is this. Vaccinating four million children safely is laudable, and there is no sane argument against it. But, those children will still go out to drink feces-polluted river water, and the generation to follow will do the same. How is there general heath improvement in that?

I know that there are non-governmental organisations working across the world to dig wells to produce clean drinking water, but they are scratching the surface of need, no matter how hard they try.

Having looked at the cost of digging wells in Africa, it seems that one dug up to 200 feet deep, that could meet the needs of hundreds people costs just over £3,000. Larger wells, up to 900 feet deep, and meeting the needs of around 3000 people, will cost just over £18,000 - from that depth they need to be electric driven. One well in a small village will meet their clean water needs now, and into the future, so preventing the catching of diseases that kill. Clean drinking water will ensure that millions of vaccines are unnecessary. Why can't Governments and philanthropists put more money into wells than vaccines? Surely it can't be that it will take that much longer for results to be seen, and therefore credit to be given.

If you look at the extra money that the UK Government has promised for the vaccine programme, and you divide that by the average cost of sinking a well to provide clean water, you can provide around 300,000 wells. Surely, it's not unreasonable to expect that if we are going to spend large amounts of money on vaccines for preventable diseases, that we concentrate on providing minimal sanitary, water and sewage systems, that can make a major difference to health now, and into the future.

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