HL Deb 13 February 1985 vol 460 cc181-4
Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what international collaboration is taking place to investigate and arrest the spreading of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and what research is being conducted into the development of a cure.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, internationally we are in regular contact with the Centers for Disease Control in the United States and the World Health Organisation AIDS Reference Centre in Paris, which collates AIDS data from European countries. In December 1983 the European Parliament called for an emergency programme of research into AIDS as part of the Community's Health and Research programme. The Comité de la Recherche Médicale (CRM), which is responsible for European Community medical and public health research, set up a working group on AIDS consisting of national co-ordinators and national experts. The national co-ordinators reviewed the present situation in their states and identified the action which should be taken at Community level to be of service to the Community as a whole.

United Kingdom co-ordinators have played a full part in identifying work which would be of value; particularly work looking into the origin of the disease and the apparent increasing infectivity of some strains of AIDS virus, the increasing evidence of heterosexual transmission, and cases in blood products recipients.

Research in the United Kingdom is being co-ordinated by the Medical Research Council working party on AIDS. As well as maintaining contact with the European Community's working group on AIDS, members of the MRC working party are collaborating with research workers in the United States and France who have isolated the virus human T-cell lymphotropic virus-3 (known as HTLV-3) which is thought to be a major cause of AIDS.

Research into AIDS in this country is proceeding through five projects funded by the Government through the Medical Research Council.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank my noble kinsman for that reply. May I ask whether he would not agree that there should be a very clear policy of procedure, so that all those who may be in contact with suspected cases of AIDS or with people suffering from AIDS will know what to do?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble kinswoman on that point; and in fact the Government have produced interim guidelines which were drawn up by the advisory committee on dangerous pathogens on the safe handling of AIDS patients. We are strengthening our efforts to dissuade all those in AIDS high risk groups from donating blood and through the Health Education Council we are promoting greater awareness of the risks of the disease.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are many on both sides of the House who would be grateful if he could persuade his department to draft him shorter Answers?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that on this occasion it was a long Answer—rather longer than we would have wished—but this is the first Question in this House on AIDS. It is a very important subject and there is a lot of misinformation to correct.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, in defence of the noble Earl may I ask whether he would not agree that this is an extremely serious problem? Has the noble Earl seen the comments of Dr. Jonathan Weber, an AIDS specialist from St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington, and Mr. Richard Wells, of the Royal College of Nursing, to the effect that the Government's response to the new and growing threat of AIDS is "derisory"? Is the noble Earl aware that hospitals hit by health service cuts are now having to cope with upwards of 400 AIDS patients, some of whom are very seriously ill? Can he say why this has not yet been declared a notifiable disease? Finally, will he confirm that there has been no investment in special AIDS units or in the education of the public and the health service staff?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I cannot agree with the remark that our efforts in this connection have been derisory. We have gone into this in some detail. We are learning by the week about this very nasty disease, and therefore we had to consolidate all the information we had before we could issue appropriate guidelines. With regard to making this a notifiable disease, there are pros and cons. If it were notifiable, it would be the only notifiable sexually-transmitted disease, and we do not wish to put those people who have AIDS into the category of being lepers.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that some of us are more concerned about the quality of Answers than about the length of them? While welcoming the noble Earl's Answer in so far as international co-operation is concerned, may I ask whether he would not agree that the emergence of this new and desperately alarming disease really does underline the folly of starving the Medical Research Council of funds?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we do not intend to starve the Medical Research Council of funds; in fact we are giving it more funds on this particular matter.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, arising out of the rumpus in the scientific press last week that AIDS may have been taxonomically mis-classified, can the noble Earl the Minister tell us whether that is likely to invalidate research done up to date or prejudice research projected for the future? With respect to the answer given to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, is it not much easier to take precautions than to prove that the precautions are not needed?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think that I am aware of the article to which the noble Earl is referring. We believe it to be the same virus that the French and the Americans have discovered, but they have given it different names.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, will my noble friend say whether there is any policy about the provision of information to help care staff, especially nurses, who may be looking after patients who could be suffering from AIDS? Is he aware that a number of members of the nursing profession have been looking after such patients without that information, perhaps at considerable risk to themselves?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am aware of that. There has been a very widely circulated booklet produced by the advisory committee, and an AIDS patient is not very different from a hepatitis patient, who nurses know about.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, as the noble Earl referred to, I think, five projects on AIDS funded by the Government through the Medical Research Council, can he tell us whether these are extra funds over and above the council's current allocation or whether they are supposed to proceed with what they have?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I believe I am right on saying that they are extra funds, and we shall continue to give extra funds wherever there is a special project on this which is worth it.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister possibly reconsider his reaction as to whether this new disease should be a notifiable disease in view of the very great danger to which doctors and nurses and people who conduct post-mortems are exposed? Will he also reconsider whether the fact that, basically, it is transmitted by active male homosexuals is not a good reason for notifying the disease?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. I was merely trying to explain the possible disadvantages of notifying it. The Government are actively considering this at the moment, but a decision has not been made. I am sorry if I misled the House.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, is it not important that the Government should take a very early decision on this question? Since I have dared to rise to my feet again, can the noble Earl answer my question about what resources—not just the question of research, but resources—the Government have put into the provision of units and also into education?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, on that last point, all the countries involved with AIDS have now made it the most researched sexually-transmitted disease, and, therefore, have spent more money on it than on any other sexually-transmitted disease in recent times. As regards the exact figures, I am unable to help the noble Lord.

Baroness Dudley

My Lords, may I ask the Minister when the Government will start screening tests of blood?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend a firm answer. There is no point in screening blood and making these tests unless we are sure that we are going to get the right answers, which at the moment we are not.

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