Leaving no one behind

Written by Petra De Sutter on 3 February 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

Poor people are more likely to develop cancer and can expect lower survival rates; these inequalities need to be addressed, writes Petra De Sutter.

 Photo credit: Adobe Stock


On February 4, the European Commission starts its outreach on the new European Cancer strategy.

If we want to be a Union that strives for more, fighting inequalities should be our core priority. As such, the EU must support national cancer plans, ensure access to affordable medicines and fight the causes of cancer.

Like most European citizens, my personal network contains many people who have been affected by cancer.


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Every 9 seconds, an EU citizen receives the bad news that he or she is diagnosed with this terrible disease.

While Europe accounts for about 9 percent of the world’s population, we account for 25 percent of all global cancer deaths. Recent projections suggest that cancer rates in Europe could double by 2035.

In addition to these alarming statistics, another challenge concerns inequalities: while cancer affects people from all backgrounds and countries, there are large disparities in the European Union.

Survival rates are generally lower in Eastern European countries and there are large differences when it comes to screening, early diagnosis and access to innovative medicines.

There are also large inequalities within countries, with poor people more likely to get cancer and have a lower survival rate.

“While Europe accounts for about 9 percent of the world’s population, we account for 25 percent of all global cancer deaths”

Developing and implementing policies to fight cancer are not the sole responsibility of national policymakers.

The EU has played an important role in the fight against cancer since the development of the first ‘Europe against Cancer’ programme in 1985, and over the years the disease has become a clear priority on the EU agenda.

Rightly so, as there is no other issue that affects European citizens more than their health. According to the Eurobarometer, 70 percent of Europeans want the EU to do more for health.

By focusing on cancer, the EU can clearly show its added value to all its citizens. The Commission has clearly understood the importance of the theme and Ursula von der Leyen has tasked the new Health Commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, to develop a new cancer plan by the end of 2020.

For this cancer strategy to be successful, it needs to address the huge disparities between and within countries. With equality as one of the core European values, we should work towards a Union in which a poor worker in Bulgaria who is affected by the disease has as much access to care as a wealthy German businessman. The EU can work towards this goal by focusing on several aspects.

First, the EU can play an important role in the development and update of national cancer control plans. While 90 percent of Western European countries have national cancer control plans, only 54 percent of Central and Eastern European countries have such plans.

“For this cancer strategy to be successful, it needs to address the huge disparities between and within countries”

And even if plans are in place, implementation often remains a challenge. The EU can help Member States identify the right priorities and assist them in planning, updating and implementing their national plans.

Second, there is an important role for the EU when it comes to access to medicines. Thanks to ground-breaking research we have made major progress towards beating cancer and there is no doubt that the EU should continue supporting this innovative research.

However, at the same time, European policymakers should also find solutions in assuring access to medicines for all citizens. It does not make sense to develop highly innovative cancer cures if there are no strategies in place on how European societies will be able to pay for these medicines.

Together with EU governments and industry, the EU should consider how a balance can be struck between innovation and affordability.

Last but not least, we should not only wage a war on cancer, but also the causes of cancer. We know that 4 out of 10 cancers are preventable and that many risk factors are the same as for other noncommunicable diseases.

Consequently, prevention eff orts would benefit not only the majority of European citizens but also national health budgets. But despite the undoubtable economic benefits, European countries on average only spend 3 percent of their budget on prevention.

In order to realise the potential of prevention, we need to focus on a wide range of issues. When it comes to tobacco consumption, alcohol abuse, and healthy diets, policymakers should not only focus on individual behaviour but also take structural measures by regulating the market.

Environmental policies also play a key role. Europeans are exposed daily to several substances that are proven to be carcinogenic or procarcinogenic - banning these should be a key priority.

In conclusion, fighting inequalities should be at the heart of the new European Cancer Strategy. Similar to the European Green Deal, which has to combine the green and social agenda, we need a European cancer strategy that leaves no one behind.

About the author

Petra De Sutter (BE, Greens/ EFA) is co-chair of Parliament’s Members Against Cancer (MAC) Intergroup

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