EU leaders – Making Europe the world leader on global health must be your legacy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung (DSW)’s #LeaveALegacy campaign is focusing on EU support for global health research and innovation as part of the EU’s research budget (known as FP9). [ Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung - DSW / YouTube]

The next EU budget must establish the bloc as the world leader in financing the health research that will end poverty-related diseases, writes Cecile Vernant.

Cecile Vernant is Head of EU office for Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung (DSW)

This World Tuberculosis (TB) Day, on March 24, the World Health Organisation is putting out a call for help: “Wanted: Leaders for a TB-free world”.

We believe that this could not be timelier for European politicians, who are about to make decisions that will affect where and how Europe’s research budget is spent in the next decade.  Commissioners, Prime Ministers, Presidents, and MEPs can take this opportunity to position Europe as the world’s global health innovation leader, not just on tuberculosis, but in the fight against all diseases of poverty, diseases that affect over one billion people worldwide.

Not only would European leadership contribute significantly to ending this suffering, it would also deliver on Europe’s key priorities – responding to global public and societal challenges, advancing Europe as a centre for research excellence, and creating high-quality employment in Europe, bringing money back into the European economy. 2018 is the chance for this generation of European politicians to leave a legacy worthy of the name.

It seems almost anachronistic in 2018 to still be talking about TB – a disease that many still associate with the previous century – as a global health emergency. However, TB remains one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, and was the biggest infectious disease killer in 2016, responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people, including 250,000 children. A disproportionate number of these deaths were in low- and middle-income countries.

But the impact of the disease is not only felt in the developing world. Over 60,000 cases of TB were reported in Europe in 2015, and the incidence of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) is increasing, including in many European countries. Progress in rolling back the disease has been made in recent years, but the difficulty of ending TB is compounded by chronic under-investment; the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that there is an annual shortfall of $2.3 billion for implementing existing TB interventions.

We can’t fight TB with outdated and ineffective weapons

This is before considering the fact that if the global health community is serious about defeating TB, existing treatments are not going to be enough. The current TB vaccine is outdated and no longer fit for purpose. We still do not have a universal cure for the disease, and treating MDR-TB comes with significant costs and serious side-effects. To make significant inroads into treating the disease, public health workers need access to innovative treatments and diagnostic tools. The only way to deliver these tools is to invest heavily and cleverly in health research and innovation, making sure there is a constant stream of new interventions. In 2018, the European Commission and EU leaders can do just that, putting global health at the heart of the EU’s research agenda for the next decade. They can leave a legacy to be proud of: millions of lives saved, and the epidemic of TB ended in our lifetime.

As a world leader in development, the EU must act. Ever more so in a constantly changing and uncertain world, where previously-reliable partners have put their commitment to global health in doubt. The EU on the other hand has remained committed, rhetorically at least, to global development and the Sustainable Development Goals. Europe already has the scale, the expertise, and the experience to lead the fight against TB. It remains in the top three global donors for neglected disease research funding that has already delivered high-quality jobs and an important return on investment back into Europe in the last decade.

Wanted: funding revolution for global health research

Investing in global health as part of the EU’s next multiannual financial framework means making sure that global health research and innovation secures the funding to develop the accessible and affordable medical solutions we need to put an end to tuberculosis, and other diseases of poverty – like malaria and HIV & AIDS; committing to a dedicated and ambitiously-funded R&I partnership instrument with Sub-Saharan-Africa, building on the success of existing programmes such as the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP); and, ensuring that the EU’s research agenda for the next decade delivers on the Sustainable Development Goals, generating quality employment and research excellence and being open to the world’s best researchers. Additionally, a major research and innovation mission aimed at diseases of poverty and backed by at least €1 billion would usher in a revolutionary new generation of vaccines, treatments, diagnostic, and other tools.

A revolution in funding for diseases of poverty is what is needed, if Europe is serious about defeating TB. By supporting these key recommendations, European leaders would not only be answering the call for global health leadership this World TB Day, but they could also ensure that their legacy – and the legacy of the EU’s research agenda in the next decade – is one of millions of lives saved. We will be watching and waiting to congratulate them.

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