International co-operation, the best remedy
As the legions of pandemics we have faced throughout human history attest, health threats are no respecters of political boundaries. Globalisation and modern technologies are stripping away the physical boundaries separating people which, while bringing humanity closer together, also means that diseases have the potential to spread that much faster.
This requires not only vigilance on the part of health authorities – both national and international – but international co-operation in research to stop existing and emerging threats in their tracks. As anyone who observed the global response to SARS and bird influenza will readily admit, joint solutions are usually the best solutions.
The world’s poorest countries often carry its heaviest disease burdens, which they cannot manage on their own. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, healthcare and social support systems are creaking under the weight of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, not to mention all the other serious neglected infectious diseases.
Although these countries have many talented scientists, they often lack the financial and scientific muscle to carry out much serious research by themselves. Europe wishes to be a good 'global citizen' in a healthy and stable world by promoting co-operation between European scientists and their counterparts in the developing world – as well as building capacity there.
Sleeping soundly under science’s net
International efforts to get special insecticide-impregnated bed nets to malaria-infected areas have had a major positive impact in reducing the incidence of the insect-borne disease. However, they are not a panacea, as subsequent EU-backed research has revealed. In Burkina Faso, for instance, mosquito bites are so frequent that, in the time it takes to set up a bed net, one can get infected. Therefore, a more holistic approach is needed that also seeks to reduce the causes leading to mosquito profusion and deals with the consequences of infection.
Two decades of partnership
In Europe, we are lucky enough to possess comprehensive healthcare systems that run smoothly enough for us to take them almost for granted. Other parts of the world are not so fortunate and their health systems are often stretched beyond breaking point. For the past 20 years, the EU has been attempting to address this situation by conducting joint research on healthcare systems with its developing country partners to understand the challenges they face and find solutions to them. A special independent panel report explores progress of 70 Union-funded INCO projects over the past 20 years and recommends that the EU should continue to invest more in such research and its uptake, and set up regional health-system observatories.