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Page last update: 25/12/2008

Medicine, Health: Parliament moves to shore up Europe's disease defences

The recent outbreaks of SARS and avian flu have highlighted the need to coordinate responses across national boundaries. Following the European Parliament’s green light, a new agency looks set to lead efforts at the EU front line by next year.

The European Parliament voted last week in favour of creating the European Centre for Disease Prevention (ECDP) by 2005, which will be based in Sweden. The new €48-million agency will enable EU Member States to pool their disease-control expertise more effectively and react faster to future outbreaks.

“We cannot afford to be complacent, as the global experience with SARS showed,” said UK Conservative Member of the European Parliament (MEP) John Bowis who was responsible for drafting the Parliament’s position on the new agency.

The Commission – which proposed the creation of the ECDP last June – welcomed the Parliament’s vote. “Infectious diseases can pose a deadly threat and they do not respect national borders. This new EU agency will enable Europe to be better prepared for future epidemics,” said Health Commissioner David Byrne.

SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, was first recognised last February. During 2003, the deadly virus spread from China to many parts of Asia, and as far afield as Canada. Despite hundreds of deaths around the world and its massive economic impact, many experts believe that rapid global collaboration – coordinated by the World Health Organisation – averted a major global pandemic.

A new level of co-operation
The world may have narrowly averted disaster with SARS, but new threats are bound to emerge. This year has already seen Avian Influenza not only cross national borders from South Korea to several Asian countries, but the virus has also crossed the species barrier from poultry to humans. Such sudden developments require highly co-ordinated and rapid responses.

"Until now, Member States have relied upon an ad hoc informal set-up to co-operate and this must be strengthened," MEP Bowis added. "The centre will allow the EU to be proactive and not just reactive."

Due to the seriousness of ECDP's remit, the Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers have agreed to fast track the legislative procedure. Close coordination with the Commission enabled the Parliament to approve the plans after just one reading. The Council of Ministers is likely to follow suit in the coming weeks.

Since diseases do not just stop at Europe's borders - such close collaboration will need to develop globally. The WHO is pushing for a tight global disease policing system. "With SARS, we learned that only by working together can we control emerging global public health threats," said WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook. "Now, we confront another threat to human health and we must reaffirm existing collaboration and form new ones."

Source: EU and WHO sources
More Information:
Commission press release
European Parliament briefing

Last update: 25 December 2008 | Top