Stella Kyriakides: Strong European Health Union is the future of EU health policy [INTERVIEW]

Stella Kyriakides: Strong European Health Union is the future of EU health policy

Stella Kyriakides: Strong European Health Union is the future of EU health policy [Photo via Stella Kyriakides Facebook]

„A healthy and resilient healthcare workforce is the fundamental basis of a sustainable healthcare system. And a sustainable healthcare system is the basis not only for our well-being but also for our economies and our societies” – says Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

 

 

Karolina Zbytniewska, EURACTIV.pl: In most EU countries, the 4th wave of the pandemic has started, and the numbers are looking bad, despite the 3rd booster shot made available. How would you assess the preparedness of the EU health systems and populations, taking the experience of almost 2 last years of the pandemic?

Stella Kyriakides: We are not where we were this time last year. Today we have safe and effective vaccines available for everyone in the European Union. This is a tremendous collective achievement when we consider that just one year ago, we did not even know whether a safe and effective vaccine would be available. Today we work together on matters related to health closer than ever before. We have a Vaccines Strategy and we have a Therapeutics Strategy and the level of preparedness of the member states in terms of the last year has changed significantly.

But we need to continue increasing our vaccination coverage and at the same time, keep in place non-pharmaceutical measures, such as masks and social distancing, especially in a fragile situation like today when we see that the case numbers are increasing again.

My message will always be that we need to continue to vaccinate, especially, as we are in changing seasons. Vaccination against COVID-19 offers the best protection against infection, severe disease, hospitalization, loss of life and long-term consequences of COVID-19.

On 31 August this year, when the EU reached the “crucial milestone” of 70% of the adult population fully vaccinated, you said that the EU could not become complacent, but instead that there was a need to “close the immunity gap and the door for new variants” How does the EU plan to help bridge the vaccination gaps between member states and various social groups within member states, in the example, migrants? And how the EU is supporting Bulgarian and Romanian populations? They have the lowest vaccination rates in the EU, in Bulgaria, only 26% of adults are vaccinated and in Romania 39%.

Now we have over 75% of the adult population fully vaccinated in the EU and just about 65% of all the population. The EU has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. But there is no doubt, that with the Delta variant, we need to continue and go even higher.

Some member states have lower vaccination rates, and we see that they are facing more pressure on their health system in this 4th wave. The vaccines work, and we are seeing that the vaccinated are protected against serious disease, hospitalization, and loss of life. This is the message that we need to transmit.

I have myself over the past months visited several member states which have low vaccination coverage. We have reached out to them, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is working very closely to support them, to increase the vaccination rates, and also to see what challenges they face.

Also, for those Member States in difficulty, the civil protection mechanism has been mobilized by several member states to support medical equipment and medicine.

When it comes to vaccine hesitancy, there is no “one size fits all” answer. Member states face different challenges in the case of vaccination coverage, and we need to address this according to the targeted populations in different ways. Different for migrants, different for the elderly, we need to address the issue of disinformation, and we are working with all the member states in this way.

You mentioned challenges. 30% of nurses have dropped out of the profession in the last two years. What is the EU doing to build a sustainable and resilient health professional workforce? How can the RRPs support frontline health professionals – nurses, doctors, pharmacists – who are involved in the vaccination delivery?

A healthy and resilient healthcare workforce is the fundamental basis of a sustainable healthcare system. And a sustainable healthcare system is the basis not only for our well-being but also for our economies and our societies.

The health workforce – doctors, nurses – have been at the frontline of this pandemic from the very beginning. The level of dedication and sacrifice that they have been showing is unbelievable.

We need to build stronger health systems in the EU. And the member states have been working towards this and we are supporting them through the new EU4Health Program, which has 5.1-billion-euro funding, and through the Recovery and Resilience Founds. We also to invest in the education and further training of the doctors and nurses, to be able to support them.

The pandemic has shown us that, unfortunately, the health systems were not as strong or invested in as they should be. We know we cannot go back to how it was before the pandemic and this is why we have also came forward with proposals for a strong European Health Union.

This involves supporting and building upon the resilience of the health systems of our member states. We need to do this not only in the case of COVID but also on communicable diseases – we need to ensure that citizens have access to the best health care for all diseases.

We know that the pandemic has dramatically changed the way that the EU and the Member States collaborate on health. Could you tell us a bit more about how the European Health Union is developing and the new Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA)? To what extent will some of the basic aspects of HERA be altered after a list of concerns was forwarded to EU institutions by 19 European health organizations on November 3rd?

The strength of what we can do together and the importance of solidarity and coordination has been shown in our work on the EU Vaccines Strategy. The EU vaccine strategy is the best proof of what we can achieve when we work together, how much progress we can make jointly.

Safe and effective vaccines are available for all citizens in every member state, whether big or small and at the same time and same conditions. And we are moving in the same direction, all 27 countries together. But it is also very clear that many of the solutions we put together to deal with the pandemic in 2020 were ad hoc solutions. And we cannot be dealing with cross-border health threats and public health crises with ad hoc solutions, we need structural solutions.

This is why we have put forward our proposals for a strong European Health Union, with several pillars. One is to strengthen the mandate of the ECDC, so it can deliver what we expect it to deliver in case of a crisis. The second is to strengthen the mandate of the European Medicine Agency (EMA). We are also working towards a new pharmaceutical strategy. I know that ensuring that citizens have access to innovative and affordable medicines is a great concern in many of the member states.

HERA, the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, is a new authority that is now in a process of being set up. It will be up and running in early 2022. And it has two important aspects – one is the preparedness mode, where it will work on threat assessment and intelligence gathering to survey to see what could be appearing on the horizon, what we need in terms of medical equipment, medicine, and vaccines. It will also have also a crisis mode, that will kick in immediately when needed to prepare actions to respond to an emergency.

Member states and the European Parliament are fully involved in all our proposals, and we are working with them in order to put this forward. We need to be prepared in a different way for future public health crises, and HERA is a step-change in this direction.

You have mentioned on Twitter the importance of civil society’s invaluable contribution to policymaking and that it is crucial for building a strong European health union. What is the role of NGOs, how does the Commission cooperate with them to promote vaccinations?

I am a firm believer in the role of civil society. NGOs have a very important role to play because they represent the viewpoints of citizens. In the area of vaccinations, it’s not only about COVID vaccines but also about all routine life-saving vaccinations.

We have seen that because of pandemics, other vaccination programs have also been impacted. It is encouraging to see that some of the disruptions and delays we saw at the beginning of the crisis are catching up. We are working very closely with civil society to make sure that vaccinations programs are able to respond and come back to the levels they were at before the pandemic. They are our partners and allies in this work.

According to WHO statistics, the coronavirus pandemic has severely disrupted access to other vaccines. What can be done from the Commission level to ensure that routine immunization rates rebound and that routine immunization continues to be delivered during pandemics?

It’s important that vaccination programs for especially child diseases continue to give the level of protection they had before. Now we have a challenging situation in many member states with an ongoing increase of COVID-19 cases, so it’s important that we all work together to ensure that all the services for all the non-communicable diseases vaccination programs continue to offer the level of protection we would want them to.

The impact of COVID-19 also applies to many other sectors and diseases – we know for example that also services delivered for cancer patients were impacted by COVID-19.

What is next for the EU on the health agenda? How will the EU contribute to making national health systems resilient and prepared for the many challenges we face, including not only the ongoing pandemic but also the simultaneous pandemics of non-communicable diseases and mental health that Europe is experiencing?

The future of EU health policy is a strong European Health Union. A strong Health union built on strong foundations. Through our new proposals on the European Health Union, we will be putting into place many structures that will be dealing with the area of health in a different way. For example, with Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan we will tackle many issues that the member states deal with in the area of cancer – for example improving diagnosis and prevention, and with our Pharmaceutical Strategy, we will give people better access to safe and affordable medicine. With our new program EU4Health, we will be able to provide unprecedented EU funding to support making national health systems stronger.

You also mentioned mental health. It’s an area that has often had not been given enough attention. It’s a priority for us, especially when we see the impact of pandemics. And now we are closely working with member states to look at what actions can be used as good practices.

I’d like to ask for your message to the people who – following the disinformation and misinformation often triggered by irresponsible politicians – and for whom the vaccination effectiveness is a matter of belief or disbelief. Of course, there are now many bodies responsible for supporting delivering accurate information to the public, combating myths around vaccines and vaccination, and exchanging best practices on vaccination, such as The Coalition for Vaccination which was convened by the European Commission in 2019. 

What would be your message to those who still haven’t made up their mind as to whether to vaccinate or not?

From the very beginning, I have said that we need to follow science. I understand how tired people are, how often the messages can be confusing – we read a lot, we see a lot on social media. But we need to understand that we have science and evidence.

We need to protect ourselves and protect those around us. And this is what EMA, ECDC, and the guidance they provide are doing. This is not about putting political views first but putting science first.

I think it’s very important that citizens have access to credible, coherent information from scientists from their member states which have clear and reliable messages. And the best way that we can protect ourselves and others now is to be vaccinated, and until we have a high enough level of vaccination, to also continue to follow the non-pharmaceutical measures when necessary.

To those hesitating or questioning, we need to explain that the science is clear:  Vaccination against COVID-19 offers the best protection against infection, severe disease, hospitalization, loss of life, and long-term consequences of COVID-19. It is the most effective way to end the pandemic and get back to a normal life. More than 7.5 billion doses of vaccine have been administered globally, with minimum adverse effects. We need to trust science!

 

Ten projekt jest współfinansowany przez program Unii Europejskiej w dziedzinie zdrowia (2014-2020) /  This project is co-funded by the European Union’s Health Programme 2014-2020.