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Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health
Commissioner Vassiliou attending the Working Seminar on the promotion of the health and wellbeing of children and young people
Speec h at Working Seminar on the promotion of the health and wellbeing of children and young people
Helsinki, 11 June 2009
Ministers, your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a great pleasure for me to be in Helsinki to address this important seminar on the promotion of the health and wellbeing of children and young people, particularly as this gives me the opportunity to share with you our vision on youth and health. A vision which is about empowerment and inclusion, about building healthy societies from the bottom up.
Empowerment is crucial because adolescence is a transition period during which young people increasingly take responsibility for their lives, taking decisions that will shape their future.
A wide range of factors influence the transition of young people to adulthood. Among these, there are experiences with the education system and the labour market, their relationships with parents, the culture in which they grow up.
Young people need strong encouragement to be involved in shaping these environments. Thus empowerment is essential to ensure that children and young people are able to take decisions in a responsible, informed, and autonomous way.
Inclusion is also fundamental, in order to avoid young people being marginalized and to allow them to play their role in society to the full: to this end, special attention needs to be paid to all factors that can pave the way to exclusion, for instance poverty and discrimination.
At the same time, young people cannot be empowered and included without enjoying good health , which represents the starting point of any youth policy.
Youth health is important in two ways: both in terms of acute needs, and in terms of the prevention of chronic disease later in life . Heart disease, cancer, mental illness and musculoskeletal disorders are very much influenced by attitudes and behaviours which are established early in young people towards eating, physical activity, sexual behaviour, alcohol, drugs and tobacco.
The paradox is that on the one hand the health of young people in the 27 EU countries is better than it has ever been. Since 1980 the probability of a child dying before the age of 5 years has fallen by two thirds from about 1.5% to less than 0.5%; young people are taller now than a generation ago; rates of disease and disability are generally better now than 25 years ago.
On the other hand, there are disturbing trends: far too many young people adopt lifestyles and ways of living which in the long term will reduce their ability to lead healthy and productive lives, thus endangering their future, as some figures seem to suggest:
Every half an hour a young person aged 15-24 dies of a fatal injury in the EU27. This means that almost twice as many young people in the EU27 die of fatal injuries than all other causes of death combined such as cancer and diseases of the circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems. Two-thirds of fatal injuries in young people (approximately 13,500 each year) are due to accidents in traffic, at the workplace, poisonings, drowning and falls.
up to 30% of boys and up to 36% of girls at age 15 smoke at least once a week;
between 39% and 51% of 15 year old girls and boys, respectively, drink alcohol at least once a week; the gap between these percentages narrows when reporting being drunk twice or more each week (56% and 59%, respectively);
between 28% and 32% of 15 year old girls and boys, respectively, report they are overweight or obese.
Inequalities in the health of young people, both between different EU regions and between social groups, are also a cause for concern. It is clear, in fact, that the health of some of our children and young people is far from ideal. Health is unevenly distributed amongst children and young people across Europe.
The most recent report of the Health and Behaviour in a School Aged Children survey showed children of less affluent families are consistently more likely to report fair or poor health and to have multiple health complaints. They were also more likely to smoke, though many other aspects of health behaviour were not strongly associated with affluence.
In addition to its effect on child health, poverty in childhood and adolescence can also have a major impact on future adult health. Adults who were poor as children are up to twice as likely to die prematurely from cardiovascular disease and to have higher rates of cancer and diabetes.
All of us have a role to play in addressing these issues – in this respect I am planning to present together with Commissioner Spidla a communication on health inequalities which is scheduled for adoption this autumn.
Promoting the health of children and young people is therefore a priority of the European Commission.
In October 2007 the European Commission adopted a new Health Strategy, Together for Health: A Strategic Approach for the EU 2008-2013 , the aim of which is to set clear objectives to guide future work on health at the European level.
The strategy puts health promotion and disease prevention at the forefront of EU policies in order to help encourage healthy lifestyles throughout the lifecycle from childhood until old age, with a focus on youth.
It focuses also on tackling major health determinants, in order to promote the health of young people, by seeking to reduce disease by tackling its underlying causes.
Health promotion, based on changing behaviour, is a key tool in tackling health determinants, and it is fundamental to start early in life to be successful.
This includes addressing issues such as nutrition and physical activity, alcohol and drugs, but at the same time, taking a broader view to work on issues such as mental health and well being, socio-economic determinants and on shaping healthy environments.
Children and young people are at the centre of this strategy: both as target groups for interventions, but increasingly as actors in their own right.
Let me give some examples regarding this new approach:
on alcohol, in the framework of the European Alcohol and Health Forum, we are planning to set up a clearing house bringing together good practise activities and projects. We have also supported the creation of a Alcohol Policy Youth Network;
on tobacco, we have the HELP campaign, one of the largest media campaigns on smoking prevention among young people in Europe;
on mental health, the 2008 European Pact for Mental Health includes a priority work stream on Youth and Education, with a conference on the mental health of children and young people and education due to take place during the Swedish Presidency in September 2009.
However, for too long older people have been telling young people what is best for them. This attitude has to change: young people should be able to participate actively in decisions regarding their health, to take responsibility for their choices and lifestyles and to play an active role in health policy making.
The challenge will therefore be to find the best ways in which young people and their organisations can systematically participate in the debates on the what, when and of actions to improve the health of young people.
We can build on what has already been achieved with youth organisations, such as for instance, the European Youth Forum, in working on issues such as the HELP campaign on smoking prevention, on alcohol, mental health or sexual health and AIDS.
But we need to be more ambitious, for instance by better linking in with unorganised youth, with migrants and minorities, by ensuring that socially disadvantaged and excluded young people can take part in the debate.
I am happy to announce that a High level Conference on youth and health will take place this July in Brussels, trying to achieve these objectives.
The Conference will be aimed at generating renewed and effective action across EU policy areas and at national level to improve the health of young people; involving young people more closely in EU work on public health; and supporting Member States' activities on the health of young people.
The conference will focus on key health concerns of young people and on the public environments they grow up in: schools and workplaces.
But the main distinguishing feature of the Conference is the intense involvement of young people and their organisations, which have been more and more interested in discussing health issues.
This is very encouraging for me, as Commissioner for health, but also for the European Commission as a whole.
It shows that young people today are willing to take up the challenge I made during my hearing before the European Parliament last year - to work with young people to ensure that they become active partners in actions to improve their health.
Together with them, with our stakeholders and the Member States, the European Commission will be able to maximise its efforts in making sure that the health of children and young people will be even better than before.
Let me conclude by wishing all participants a fruitful discussion. Thank you.