EU initiative on chronic illnesses may ‘indirectly’ help kidney patients, Commission says

Despite kidney disease affecting lives of many, it was not included among five strands of the initiative 'Healthier together' that covers cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, mental health and neurological disorders. [SHUTTERSTOCK/Peakstock]

This article is part of our special report Fostering green innovation in kidney disease treatment.

Although not included in the EU’s list of major non-communicable diseases, chronic kidney disease (CKD) will benefit from an ‘indirect’ impact of the work on other conditions that share common risk factors, according to the European Commission.

Around 600 million people worldwide have some form of kidney damage. Chronic kidney disease increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, and in some cases can progress to kidney failure, requiring dialysis or transplantation.

Its global prevalence is predicted to increase by 17% over the next decade.

“It is estimated that chronic kidney disease affects about one in ten Europeans,” Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told EU lawmakers in March, during a plenary debate on a systematic EU approach to CKD.

She added that this “alarmingly high number is expected to grow even further, as typical risk factors such as diabetes and hypertension become more prevalent”.

However, despite affecting the lives of many, kidney disease was not included among the five strands of ‘Healthier Together’, the Commission’s initiative focused on the prevention and management of non-communicable diseases (NCD).

Launched at the end of 2021, ‘Healthier Together’ covers cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, mental health, and neurological disorders.

The EU executive hopes that the initiative will help the member states to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the World Health Organization (WHO)’s target of reducing premature mortality from non-communicable diseases by one-third by 2030.

“This can only be done through prevention and treatment, and by identifying and sharing best practices at national and EU level,” Kyriakides said.

‘Healthier Together’ addresses the leading causes of avoidable premature death, focusing on health promotion and prevention. It also puts focus on screening and early detection, diagnosis and treatment management, and quality of life, along with improving knowledge and data availability.

All these aspects are often considered essential for improving the lives of CKD patients, according to health stakeholders and experts.

Belgian MEP from the centrist Renew group, Hilde Vautmans, is one of the supporters of having CKD included in the Healthier Together initiative. On World Kidney day in March, she said that including CKD in the initiative is “crucial”.

Promising portable kidney faces innovation, portability bottlenecks

Portable artificial kidney is perceived as the next big thing in the field of home treatment that could stop dialysis being a full-time job for patients, but barriers to its rollout persist.

‘Indirectly’ addressing kidney disease

While CKD is not directly addressed in the initiative, Kyriakides stressed that working on strands such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases will have a positive impact on kidney disease as well.

“Diabetes and high blood pressure are among the main risk factors for chronic kidney disease. So, by working on these strands, we will have a positive effect also on kidney disease,” she said.

The EU’s health chief also mentioned Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan which could, again, indirectly have an effect on CKD.

“This ambitious and comprehensive plan foresees that we tackle health determinants such as tobacco use, nutrition, physical activity and alcohol. This will also help with other non-communicable diseases, like chronic kidney disease, by addressing common risk factors,” Kyriakides stressed.

Based on EUROSTAT data, in 2016, kidney and ureter diseases caused more than 64,000 deaths, while kidney cancer accounted for over 26,000 deaths in the EU. A vast majority of deaths in both cases concerned people aged 65 or above.

The COVID-19 pandemic was another burden for patients suffering from kidney disease as patients with chronic conditions run a higher risk of suffering a serious course of the infection.

Commission: burden of levelling kidney treatment access falls mainly on member states

While inequalities across the EU when it comes to kidney disease treatments are well-known by the European Commission, the ball is ultimately in member states’ courts when it comes to expanding access, according to health stakeholders.

The role of research

Kyriakides also stressed the importance of “research and pooling knowledge to increase the quality of life and life expectancy of patients with chronic kidney disease”.

When it comes to research funding, the EU has spent more than €100 million through Horizon 2020 programme for kidney disease and transplantation research, while another €64 million were used for funding 40 projects on chronic kidney disease, and €47 million was given to 24 projects related to kidney transplantation.

“In the Horizon Europe 2021 work programme, our new flagship, the European Innovation Council, included a call for medical technology and devices that includes portable dialysis,” Kyriakides added.

A portable artificial kidney is perceived as the next big thing in the field of home treatment, which could stop dialysis from being a full-time job for patients.

In a recent study, more than 1,500 health specialists asked about their perceptions of the future of kidney replacement therapies considered portable/wearable kidneys as one of the best viable technologies together with implantable solutions.

Funding is also available through the new EU4Health Programme, which can support “knowledge-sharing and mutual learning, […] capacity-building actions and strengthen strategic planning”.

Kidney disease research pins hopes on new disruptive technologies

Not many substantial breakthroughs have been experienced in the field of chronic kidney disease (CKD) treatment since the mass diffusion of dialysis units in the ’70s. Technological progress is growing exponentially though, opening up new possibilities for bettering patients’ lives.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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