A continued focus on health will help to deliver for the people of Europe

As COVID laid bare the vulnerabilities of European healthcare systems, further strides must be taken to protect public health

By Sara Cerdas MEP

Sara Cerdas (PT, S&D) is a vice-chair of the European Parliament's Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA)

05 Apr 2024

Asking to bring to light the issues in which the European Union (EU) will play a crucial role in the next term of 2024-2029, we’ll embark upon the journey back to the start. But in order to do this, I must recollect that before becoming an Member of European Parliament (MEP), I was a public health medical doctor very much focused on a PhD in Sweden, far from imagining that, in addition to being invited to join a shortlist of candidates for the European elections, I would actually be elected in a period of modern history where health has never been more important.

New faces filled the unfamiliar halls of the European Parliament, bringing a sense of optimism and determination to tackle the pressing issues facing the Union. However, the world was blindsided by an unprecedented crisis. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, leaving no corner untouched, and the EU found itself at the epicenter of a battle against an invisible enemy.

In the wake of this crisis, the importance of health skyrocketed from being a mere policy area to the forefront of political agendas. Suddenly, discussions that were once confined to conference rooms and committee meetings were thrust into the spotlight, dominating headlines for several weeks in a row. The pandemic laid bare the vulnerabilities of healthcare systems across the European Union and underscored the critical need for robust, coordinated action to safeguard public health.

And I am proud to say that the EU delivered. The EU4Health programme 2021-2027 represents the largest-ever investment in health by the European Union with over 5.3 billion euros allocated to support various key areas of health and Member States’ healthcare systems.

Just as I didn't anticipate the journey from public health doctor to MEP, the world did not foresee the seismic shift where health was catapulted to the forefront of our debates

This legislation together with the Regulation on the serious cross-border threats to health and the increased mandates European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), marks the turning point where the EU become more and more pivotal in health, laying the foundations for the construction of the European Health Union.

The focus on non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the biggest burden of disease in the EU, was also brought to the discussion arena. Cancer emerges as a tremendous foe, and with the new Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan as well as more than 4 billion euros of funds for prevention, early detection, accessibility to treatments and quality of life, the EU is now ready to lead the way. But let’s not forget all other NCDs and where the EU can be a game-changer. From cardiovascular, respiratory, metabolic diseases to mental health conditions and many others, primordial prevention is our strongest weapon. Our endeavor is to decrease exposure to risk factors and augment protective factors. And considering that social inequities are directly linked to inequities in health, our social welfare plays an important role, as do our cities’ green spaces, stronger and supporting communities, work-friendly environments that nurture productivity without sacrificing health, quality in the air we breathe and the water we consume, among many other health determinants. These pillars of our modern existence are meaningless, and I’d say impossible to reach, without a One Health approach. If we are ambitious enough, we can streamline them faster if we are bold enough to implement a Health in all Policies approach.

However, during this mandate the EU failed to deliver several crucial revisions such as the long-awaited Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) and the Tobacco Products and Tobacco Advertising Directives. Similarly, the proposed revisions to the regulation on food information to consumers (FIC) faced hurdles, particularly concerning the harmonisation of mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling, health warnings on harmful food products, and mandatory origin information for all food products. Considering that around 40% of all deaths by cancers are preventable and that these 3 legislative initiatives tackle chemical substances responsible for a great majority of the EU's deadliest types of cancer, one cannot say we are being effective in this battleground.

Looking ahead to the next mandate, there is a pressing need to expedite negotiations on critical directives and regulations pertaining to the pharmaceutical package. These legislative efforts are essential for ensuring the safety, efficacy, and accessibility of medicinal products, thus safeguarding the health and well-being of European citizens in the years to come.

The next European Parliament must take decisive actions monitoring the development of these topics but also in the promotion and participation of public debate on the global fight to antimicrobial resistance, the so much demanded strategy for mental health, initiatives to counter the brain drain and the health workforce crisis, call for a strategic autonomy in the health sector, the achievement of the HIV 95-95-95 targets by 2025 and the fulfillment of the United Nations´ Sustainable Development Goals target 3.

Just as I didn't anticipate the journey from public health doctor to MEP, the world did not foresee the seismic shift where health was catapulted to the forefront of our debates during this mandate. Whether propelled by unforeseen crises or long-standing challenges, the EU found itself confronting critical moments and was up to the challenge under Article 168 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) to address the health needs of its citizens head-on. It's evident that the EU has a lot yet to offer, however, as we dive into the elections from the 6th to the 9th of June, we desperately need political forces in the European Parliament that are unapologetically pro-European and unwaveringly committed to upholding the social rights and well-being of all citizens. Pledges won’t be enough to face populism but one can only hope that the collective memory empowers citizens to choose representatives that strive for better health and well-being for all in a true European Health Union.

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