European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
New Health defences for tomorrow's Europe: launching the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
ECDC Start up event
Stockholm, 27 September 2004
Members of the Management Board of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and control,
Esteemed guests and colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In December 2003, the European Council, the summit of European leaders, chose Stockholm as the seat of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. As the EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection I am well aware of Sweden's enviable position as having amongst the best population health - and amongst the highest life expectancy - in Europe.
Sweden is also known as a leader in the area of disease prevention and control and a firm advocate of equal access to health and good health for all. Stockholm is a very suitable location for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The fact that we are meeting here in the Rosenbad - close to the office of the Swedish Prime Minister - speaks about the importance the Swedes attach to health - and to this new EU agency.
I would like to thank Minister Johansson, the government of Sweden and the County of Stockholm for hosting this event today, and supporting the Board meeting tomorrow.
- Today is a day for Sweden and for Stockholm to be proud of - the Centre is the first EU institution in Sweden.
- It is a good day for the European Union because it sees an addition of a new health capacity.
- This day signals further international collaboration in health.
While we celebrate today, we have to work very hard in the coming months to make the Centre operational by May 2005.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control we are creating today will network Europe's health knowledge. It will enable:
- More effective continent wide surveillance of infectious diseases;
- Better preparation for - and response to - future epidemics;
- Better disease prevention and control cooperation in Europe and with its international partners.
And, may I say how delighted I am that so many of the Centre's future national and international partners are here with us, showing the global recognition of this event.
When I talk about "Europe" I mean more than just the European Union.
The European Commission acting on behalf of the Centre is advancing arrangements which will rapidly translate into a sound basis allowing the European Economic Area countries, such as Norway and Iceland, to participate in its work.
I am also keen to see other neighbouring countries become part of the Centre's network, particularly those countries negotiating to join the EU. When I talk about continent-wide disease surveillance I mean just that - surveillance covering as much of the European continent as is possible.
Cooperation with our neighbours, and with our international partners, is not just about friendship and solidarity. It is about being effective in the fight against disease.
SARS in 2003 showed us that, in today's world, a disease outbreak can spread internationally with alarming speed. We need 21st century institutions for the 21st century challenges.
European Parliament and Council
The Commission presented draft legislation to create the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in July 2003. The final Regulation was signed into law by Parliament and Council in April 2004. Anyone familiar with the lawmaking process in Brussels will know that this is impressively fast and demonstrates Europe's institutions willingness and preparedness to act if called upon.
I would like to thank both Parliament and Council for their political support, and for enabling the Centre to be established so rapidly.
Networking health knowledge
EU citizens place a high value on their health. The last five years have seen the political profile of health policy steadily increase. Health has steadily moved from the margins, to the centre of the EU's political agenda, helped also by serious events and new threats having arrived on our doorsteps.
Moving health into the mainstream of EU policy making is an essential element in protecting European citizens and connecting with them. To further this development, in July I launched a public reflection process with a view to determining the future EU strategy for good health.
I have invited all stakeholders to contribute to this debate about the future of health in the EU by mid October.
I hope that you will also take up this invitation to comment.
Achieving good health is a long-term challenge. In the consultation process I have set out some thoughts on what Europe should be doing for good health in the next few years.
There are, what I might call "structural factors", driving the EU health community to greater cooperation in health policy. We have created a European Union in which people and products can travel freely from country to country.
The economic and cultural benefits of this have been huge. But this free exchange and the speed of these movements means that national authorities cannot easily stop dangerous products - or infections - from other EU countries and neighbours entering their territory.
Since the late 1990s EU countries have been steadily building their cooperation in the area of disease surveillance. A range of Communicable Disease Networks was established in 1999, linking public health institutes around the EU and beyond.
These Networks, staffed by our national partners and co-financed through the EU's public health program, are capable of providing rapid alerts on new disease outbreaks, as well as coordinating routine disease surveillance.
This cooperation has proved invaluable. For example, during the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Network was able to provide Europe-wide daily reports on new SARS cases. In 2004 the EU was able to fund experts to go to Vietnam to investigate the human health implications on avian influenza.
However, Europe-wide disease surveillance now needs to be put on a proper footing. It needs the stability of multi-annual core funding from the EU budget. It needs a dedicated team of central staff to support and develop the network. It needs to provide a focal point for expertise and training of professionals in the field. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will bring all this into being.
This brings me to the contribution of the scientific community. Surveillance in Europe has been relying on the hard work done by those who collect the data at local level, assemble the national statistics, and ultimately bring them together at the EU level. Throughout the process, the information is analysed and used to guide public health action.
The new Centre will give a major boost to this process in the EU. But, the Centre will continue to need the strong support of the scientific world and learned societies. A sense of ownership by those of you in the scientific committee in the frontline will be essential to the centre's success.
Rapid response to emerging threats
New and potentially deadly diseases are identified every year. From our experience of SARS in 2003 we know that disease outbreaks can quite rapidly spread internationally.
How should EU countries respond in such cases? Should they close down flights to and from the country where the outbreak started? Have they the medicines in stock that might be effective against the disease?
When such health threats arise the EU Institutions and Member States need expert scientific advice, and they need it quickly.
This is where the Centre will have a crucial role to play. Using its network, the Centre could, on request, rapidly pull together outbreak investigation teams made up of Europe's top disease investigators.
There they could work with the relevant national authorities, and with the WHO, to identify the cause of the disease, and give advice on surveillance tasks and counter-measures such as isolation of patients and tracing of contacts.
The Centre will coordinate work in Europe's leading laboratories to analyse samples collected during outbreaks, and bring together key experts to assess the properties of the threat posed by disease outbreaks. The Centre would thus be in a position to judge the risks posed and advise on the options available to contain the disease.
Within a short time of an outbreak occurring, the Centre could help the authorities - and the public - across Europe know the sort of threat they are facing and the scientific basis for the various measures available to respond to it.
But how will the Centre achieve all this within its rather limited resources?
Member States' key role
The US Centre for Disease Control, the European Centre in Stockholm, the Centres in Canada, Hong Kong and elsewhere share similar objectives. However, the European Centre is based on the European model. It seeks to network and build on the efforts of national institutes. While the Centre in Stockholm may be small in staff numbers, it brings together thousands of world-class public health specialists and scientists across Europe.
The scientists and officials based at the Centre in Stockholm will act as the hub of this network of experts and laboratories covering the 25 EU countries - and I hope - many of our European neighbours.
Given that these national centres have some of the best experts and epidemiologists in the world, the EU saw no value in duplicating this expertise by creating some new EU "mega-agency". I expect to find eminent representatives of these institutes in the Centre's future Advisory Forum, which will advise on the scientific standards, tools and priorities for the Centre.
Working in this decentralised network, the whole can be greater them the sum of its parts. In this way, we can face the future events with greater confidence.
The role of the Centre, then, will be to provide support to the experts in the national agencies, enabling them to work together more effectively. It will network the knowledge and expertise in the national agencies - not try to replace it. It will also provide career and training opportunities - for example, via the secondment of staff or through pan European training programmes.
The Centre will also contribute to faster, better and more coherent information on health in a joint action with its national partners, who will be a first port of call for the citizens. To be successful the Centre must gain a reputation fair honest and straight communication to the general public and must strike the right balance between clear language and scientific precision. As risk managers, our decisions will be much more effective with sound information, which is coherent and consistent across national borders.
I see the Centre's Management Board - bringing together, as it does, all Member States - as having a key role to play in ensuring the Centre and the national agencies work together effectively and independently. I would urge the Board members gathered here today to use the Board's inaugural meeting tomorrow - and our dinner this evening - as an opportunity to start building the spirit of teamwork and cooperation we need to take disease control in Europe to a new level of excellence.
The Centre joins the network of other EU Agencies working for Health: the Europe Food Safety Authority, the Medicines Agency in London, the Agency for Health and Safety in Bilbao and the Drugs Agency in Lisbon.
As I said earlier, infectious diseases do not respect borders and they represent a real challenge for the EU institutions of today. To give one example, infection rates for HIV-AIDS are increasing throughout Europe. The rate of new infections in some European countries is so high that the situation could be described as a crisis, threatening to blight a generation of young Europeans. The Stockholm agency will have a central role to play in the action plan presented by the Commission in Vilnius on 17 September to fight this resurgent epidemic.
The Centre will be a sustainable resource for public health in Europe. It will prove its value very quickly, and equally fast we have to think of the broader future of the Centre.
Today is a first step in building an essential health resource for future Europeans. During the political process to enact the Regulation for the Centre, the Commission suggested considering the needs in other areas of public health. Many ministers and the Parliament took up this message very seriously and thus the Regulation contains a duty for the Centre to evaluate the need to extend the scope of the mission to other relevant areas. Once completed, the Commission will propose suitable modifications to the Regulation, as necessary.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control may be initially a relatively small EU agency, but the importance of its mission could not be larger. I would like to call on all of you gathered here today - our Swedish hosts, our Management Board members, and our international partners
- to provide what it takes for the Centre to become operational;
- to take up the momentum from the negotiation table in the EP and Council; and
- to work together to build the Centre and its network.
As we embark on the process of building up the Centre's staff and putting in place its systems, let us never forget that lives may depend on us getting it right, quickly.
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