EU health ministers rehearse for major health crises

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Gathering for an informal meeting on 8-9 September, the ministers emphasised the need to improve coordination and speed up reactions at European level to enable authorities to efficiently protect the public in case of major outbreaks of contagious diseases like avian influenza, SARS and yellow fever.

The conclusions followed a simulation exercise, during which ministers discussed how to react in terms of communication, regulating travel and using and stockpiling health products with regard to two crisis scenarios at European level  – yellow fever and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Public health security is one of the main health priorities of the French EU Presidency. The upcoming Czech and Swedish presidencies will also look to move forward with the theme in a bid to improve the EU’s capacity to deal with major pandemic threats such as the bird flu epidemic, following the publication of a report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) highlighting the bloc’s insufficient level of preparedness (EURACTIV 27/09/07).

While most EU states have established specific avian and pandemic influenza planning policies, work at EU level must be stepped up, the French Presidency argued in a briefing published ahead of the informal meeting. 

Indeed, the briefing stresses that a major public health crisis “would have a political dimension and would involve a major communication challenge” if one is to win and maintain people’s trust while at the same time circulating the information necessary to protect the public. 

Enhanced EU-scale cooperation is thus necessary, but current European coordination efforts on public health issues do not yet encompass “all aspects of a crisis which will affect society as a whole,” noted the briefing. 

In this respect, the ministers highlighted the need for an intersectoral approach, not just to cover health aspects but also to ensure the continuity of essential services, such as transport and economic activity.

Ministers also stressed the need to establish strategic stocks of health products necessary to deal with such crises. The severe shortage of techtonium – a key radioactive isotope used in cancer diagnoses and other medical procedures – faced by EU hospitals over the last week served as an example of the need to ensure better continuity in the supply of health products. 

French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin announced her intention to convene an extraordinary meeting of the Health Security Committee in the near future to examine the possibility of using non-European techtonium resources to meet needs and the conditions for an equitable distribution of limited resources.

The next Health Council, set to take place on 15-16 December, will adopt formal conclusions on an EU public health security strategy. 

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