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European Commission - Press release
Public Health: Commission proposes effective measures to better protect citizens from a wide range of cross-border health threats
Brussels, 8 December 2011. To better protect Europeans from a wide range of health threats, and provide for a fully co-ordinated response in the event of a crisis, the European Commission adopted today a legislative proposal on the means to address serious cross border health threats. Building on lessons learned with recent crises such as the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, the volcanic ash cloud in 2010 and the outbreak of E. coli in 2011, the Commission is proposing to beef up the means to prepare for and to address such crises. The main measures proposed include:
European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli said: "In today's globalised society, people and goods move across borders and illnesses can spread around Europe – and the globe - within hours. This is why the European Union and its Member States must be prepared to act together in a fully co-ordinated manner to stop a disease from spreading. The proposal we adopted today gives us the means and the structures to effectively protect our citizens across Europe from a wide range of health threats".
Biological, chemical or environmental factors can trigger serious cross border health threats. Such threats can materialise as diseases that spread from person-to-person such as flu, food and water-borne diseases such as botulism, infections with E. coli or result from extreme weather conditions like heat waves or cold spells. In recent years, the European Union has gone through various crises of this kind. Building on the Early Warning and Response System for communicable diseases created in 1998, the Commission's proposal puts forward measures to strengthen the response to serious cross-border threats in the EU.
The European Commission has developed capacities to manage health crises and has established a series of policies, mechanisms and instruments to tackle serious cross-border health threats. Tailored policies have been put in place depending on the nature of the threat, with for example: a focus on civil protection, law enforcement or support structures.
However, until now, different types of serious cross-border threats to health have not been treated in a consistent manner at EU level. Threats emerging from biological, chemical and environmental events are not addressed in the same way as those from communicable diseases.
The present proposal builds on existing structures and further strengthens them through the following:
1. Extends the assessment of risks and the co-ordination of measures from communicable diseases to all heath threats caused by biological, chemical or environmental causes.
During a health crisis it is essential to know the nature of the threat, how it is spreading, how fast and widely, to be able to limit the spread and health effects, and to provide up-to-date information and advice to citizens. There is already a network in place for the epidemiological surveillance of communicable diseases composed of the European Commission, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and national authorities. With the new proposal, this expertise is extended to other serious cross-border health threats. Should such a threat occur, networks can be set up on an ad hoc basis to exchange information, assess the risks involved, pooling scientists and expertise.
2. Strengthens the role of the Health Security Committee to better co-ordinate measures to fight a health crisis
In 2001, after the terrorist attacks and deliberate release of anthrax toxins in the United States, the EU Health Security Committee was set up by EU Health Ministers. Since then, the committee has supported the coordination of responses to public health crises at EU level by coordinating risk assessment and management of serious cross-border health threats. The proposal formalises and gives a broader mandate to the Committee which includes providing advice to Member States and the Commission on both policy and technical issues relating to health security.
3. Beefs up preparedness to fight a crisis
Having a preparedness plan in place on what do to when a health crisis strikes is essential to halt the crisis. The Commission's proposal foresees that every Member State coordinates its efforts to develop, strengthen and maintain its national preparedness and response plan, in consultation with other Member States. Such plans include e.g. measures to improve access to medical countermeasures, and co-ordination with other key sectors. Member States also respect guidelines put forward by the Commission, which will co-ordinate the process. Such guidelines may relate to health measures or communication with the public. The proposal also provides a basis for joint voluntary purchasing of vaccines and other medical countermeasures for the Member States that are interested.
4. Provides the means to recognise a European "health emergency situation" for the purpose of making medicines (needed to curb a crisis) available faster
The proposal foresees that, when a life threatening disease that can be prevented by vaccines or cured by medicines is spreading rapidly in Europe and the World Health Organisation has not yet declared the "emergency" situation, the EU can recognise a European health emergency, for the sole purpose of authorizing new medicines faster or changing the indication of a medicine. Under existing EU legislation, the European Commission needs to wait for the WHO to declare an international emergency across continents. This provision seeks to address situations where a disease is spreading across Europe (not on a world scale) and lives can be saved with pharmaceuticals.
5. European emergency cross border measures
The proposal foresees that, in very specific emergency situations, resulting in people dying or hospitalised in a large scale, and when Member States' measures prove insufficient to control the spread across borders, the Commission adopts emergency cross border measures e.g. related to containment of an outbreak, or the screening of infected citizens.
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