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Androulla Vassiliou

Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health

Reducing the Burden of Cancer in Europe - Cancer screening saves lives

Speech delivered during the forum of MEPs against Cancer, European Parliament
Brussels, 9 December 2008

Honourable Members, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here today to address this important event on tackling the challenges of cancer through screening in the European Union.

This meeting marks the end of a very important year, in which new impetus has been given to our joint fight against cancer.

The European Parliament and the Council have clearly demonstrated their political commitment, paving the way for our continued efforts to prevent and control cancer – a disease which affects each and every one of us – either directly, or indirectly.

The MEPs against Cancer group plays a significant role in supporting EU citizens and patients in their fight against cancer.

I would also like to thank you for your efforts to bring key stakeholders and Member States together in important discussion fora, such as today's event, and for assuring constant attention to the wide range of health challenges posed by cancer across the EU.

My focus today is the European Commission Report on the Implementation of the Council Recommendation on Cancer Screening, which is foreseen to be adopted later this month. But I would also like to look beyond that report to our planned activities for next year.

The Report on the Implementation of the Council Recommendation on Cancer Screening

The Report on the Implementation of the Council Recommendation on Cancer Screening focuses on breast, cervical and colorectal cancer. The incidence and mortality rates of these cancers vary widely across the EU, reflecting considerable inequalities in the cancer burden between, but also within Member States.

For example: the highest incidence rate of breast cancer is reported in Belgium, while the highest mortality rate is in Denmark. The lowest estimated incidence rate for breast cancer is found in Romania and the lowest mortality rate in Spain.

The burden of disease is particularly unevenly distributed in the case of cervical cancer with the highest incidence rate for Romania, which also has the highest mortality rate.

While the lowest incidence and mortality is reported in Finland. The proportion of cancer cases and deaths attributed to this cancer is markedly elevated in all but one of the Member States which joined the EU in 2004 and 2007.

As I am sure many of you are already aware, the Council Recommendation on cancer screening, adopted in 2003, sets out fundamental principles of best practice in the early detection of cancer. It invites all Member States to take common action to implement national population-based screening programmes for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer.

However, our report on the Implementation of the Council Recommendation, shows that:

  • for breast cancer, only 22 Member States are running or establishing population-based screening programmes;
  • for cervical cancer, only 15 Member States;
  • For colorectal cancer, only 12 Member States.

The annual volume of screening examinations in the EU is considerable. However, this volume is less than half of the minimum annual number of examinations that would be expected if the screening tests specified in the Council Recommendation were available to all EU citizens of appropriate age (which is around 125 million examinations per year).  

Let me add that less than half of the current volume of examinations (41% to be precise) is performed in population-based programmes which provide the organisational framework for implementing comprehensive quality assurance as required by the Council Recommendation.

Even though the current volume of activities is still far from the level we expect, we should recognise that the Member States are allocating considerable resources to cancer screening all across the Union.

As underlined at the Council in June, there remains considerable commitment to tackling cancer. This should give us all some hope for the future.

On the issue of allocating resources however, I would like to take the opportunity to underline a very important point in relation to the ongoing financial crisis.

There is no doubt a temptation in times of economic hardship for public authorities to spend less. However, in the field of health this would amount to a false economy. Taking the example of cancer, cutting back on screening programmes would lead to fewer cases being detected early, more suffering and inevitably more deaths.

Moreover, aside from the human aspect, the economic and societal costs and implications would be significantly higher. Investment in health pays future dividends.

Future activities

The European Commission is committed to continue its long-term efforts to prevent cancer, reduce mortality and improve the quality of life of individuals living with cancer.

I am personally committed to support Member States in their efforts to tackle the increasing burden of cancer in Europe.

I am therefore pleased to announce that this is among the Commission's priority initiatives for 2009.

We plan to adopt Communication on Action against Cancer on the basis of a European Partnership approach. The aim is to create more synergies in cancer-related activities and between different stakeholders in the field.

Through the Partnership, we would like to determine main priorities and steer future activities in that direction. This would help us to avoid scattered actions, which may lead to duplication of efforts and limited resources on an EU as well as national level.

This Autumn, together with key stakeholders, the European Commission held a brainstorming workshop on future EU actions against cancer.

The workshop clearly showed that there is considerable support for national cancer action plans to more effectively prevent and tackle cancer.

Tackling cancer and ensuring that health systems meet the needs of citizens is, of course, primarily a matter for national authorities.

However, I strongly believe that the EU can bring significant added value by providing a "platform" for exchange of best practice, sharing of information and expertise. This partnership approach will bring together a number of different stakeholders into a common initiative with a common commitment to addressing cancer, as a model for non-communicable diseases in general.

Areas to be covered by the platform include:

  • Health information, collection and analysis of comparable data, and evidence to support learning and sharing of knowledge;
  • Primary prevention;
  • Identification and promotion of good practice in cancer-related healthcare;
  • Priorities for cancer research.

In the preparation of the launch of the partnership, we plan to hold a series of meetings next year with experts, Member States and other stakeholders. We would like to put in place a real partnership that will be sustained in the future, and jointly taken forward by the Member States.

Concluding remarks

To conclude, I very much welcome the significant efforts of MEPs against Cancer to support EU citizens and patients in their fight against cancer.

I am fully committed to pursuing our longstanding and important efforts on cancer prevention and control to make a real difference for cancer patients across Europe.

Our future success will, of course, depend on your support, and on that of many others.

To address the continuing threat of cancer across Europe, we need to work more closely together at European level – in a true spirit of partnership.

Thank you.

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