Before taking a temporary unpaid leave from his position in Brussels, EU health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis looked back over his mandate in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.com, highlighting his fight to promote vaccination and tackle resistance to antibiotics.
As from today (1 April), Andriukaitis takes a temporary leave from the European Commission to campaign for Lithuania’s presidential elections on 12 May, with a possible second round on 26 May.
Speaking to EURACTIV before leaving Brussels, Andriukaitis recalled how he regularly came under attack from anti-vaccine campaigners during his mandate, saying this inspired him to act though.
“Personally, I like that very much, it means that I’m doing my job well,” he said.
He expressed optimism about the future of the vaccination debate in Europe, saying EU ministers had unanimously adopted his recommendations to strengthen cooperation against vaccine-preventable diseases in late 2018.
“Now the member states should do their homework to implement those recommendations into real life, to reshape their national vaccination programs and to discuss coverage,” he said.
The Health at a Glance report, presented by the Commission in November, warned of a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in some parts of Europe, pointing out the importance of promoting effective vaccination coverage for all children across EU countries.
But Andriukaitis says Europe is better equipped to face this threat thanks to improved cooperation among EU agencies like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Medicine Agency (EMA) and the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC).
“Now they can present a common picture about vaccination, about the safety of vaccines and about epidemiological status,” he said.
The Commission will organise a Global Vaccine Summit in September to maintain the EU’s leadership on a topic that, in his view, needs to remain high on the political agenda.
Italy is now good
During his mandate, Andriukaitis battled against the Italian government’s attempt to roll-back obligatory vaccination in certain cases, saying last February that political decisions in Rome should be taken on science and not “fake news”.
The statement triggered a fight with the ruling Five Star Movement, who said the party’s position on vaccination was in line with the EU’s objective of reaching maximum coverage.
But Andriukaitis says the dispute is over.
“I’m now happy about Italy. Can you imagine how many times we discuss with the Italian government? But the Lorenzin law was accepted and mandatory vaccination is in place there,” Andriukaitis said.
Starting from 11 March, the Lorenzin law on mandatory vaccination became fully operational in Italy, meaning non-vaccinated children up to 6 years are not qualified for school entry.
Several parents’ movements have opposed the law, saying it’s a breach of the right to education. But Five Star Health Minister Giulia Grillo rejected pressure from Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Lega party, who asked to postpone the application of the obligatory scheme “to avoid traumas for children”.
Italy’s government first attempted to overturn the law in September, by imposing voluntary vaccination at schools, then changed tack and stepped back, keeping the vaccinations obligatory.
The Slovak Health Minister also recently filed a proposal similar to Italy’s Lorenzin law, which bans unvaccinated children from accessing kindergartens.
However, Andriukaitis might have rejoiced too early about Italy. An amendment tabled as part of a new decree-law, filed last week by some Five Star and Lega MPs, seeks to cancel the obligation to submit a vaccine certificate to enter school, de facto sterilising the entire Lorenzin law.
Incentives for anti-microbial resistance
Another hot topic that the Lithuanian Commissioner had to deal with during his mandate was related to anti-microbial resistance (AMR).
The misuse and overuse of antibiotics has led some microorganisms, also called superbugs, to develop antimicrobial resistance, meaning that medicines become less effective and infections persist in the body, increasing the risk of spreading to others.
According to Andriukaitis, the next Commission should put in place incentives to cope with the rising threat of superbugs, adding that the EU also needs to become a global actor in the field of anti-microbial resistance.
“We have adopted a new action plan on AMR and now we are monitoring the situation and how member states are implementing national plans,” Andriukaitis said.
The Commission’s work is now to assess the different incentive models, and make recommendations on how to re-shape or intensify them from a scientific and technological point of view.
“Another issue is the research and developments of new treatments. We granted a lot of money to the Innovative Medicine Initiative, which is a good example,” he said.
“But we want now to propose more money in Horizon Europe in the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) dedicated to new antibiotics, medical devices and rapid diagnostic tests,” he said.
Anti-microbial resistance is a deadly threat that claims 33,000 lives in the EU every year. It is also responsible for an annual economic loss estimated at around €1.5 billion, and is expected to become a bigger killer than cancer by 2050.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]