Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Opinion

Europe needs incentives to combat chronic disease

  • Chronic diseases are exacerbated by behaviour - smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, and poor diet (Photo: Steve Baker)

This was a tumultuous year for the European Union, marked by continued economic malaise and the United Kingdom's historic decision to launch the process to leave.

Some are questioning whether the EU can survive the loss of its second-largest economy. Looking ahead to 2018, the inevitable belt-tightening will put public health budgets on the chopping block even as Europe faces a growing double-burden of aging and chronic disease.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

As our leaders aim to get the EU back on track, they should remember that healthy populations are the basis for strong economic growth. Short-sighted policies that neglect public health and stifle future medical innovation will only deepen current problems.

The European Commission sounded fresh alarm on chronic diseases in The State of Health in the EU, published in conjunction with the OECD, the Paris-based club of wealthy nations, in October.

This biannual survey of European countries found that chronic diseases – cancer, diabetes, hypertension and others – comprise up to 80 percent of EU healthcare costs on average. The related deaths among working-age adults cost the continent €115 billion in lost productivity each year.

Because chronic diseases are exacerbated by behaviour - smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, and poor diet - an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

More aggressive investment in deterring these behaviors would reduce treatment costs and boost economic productivity to the tune of billions of euros each year.

Yet, while politicians pay lip service to these grave concerns, EU member states spend on average only three percent of health budgets on prevention. Some measures have been adopted, such as the banning of online advertisements for alcohol.

Missing, however, are reasonable education programs to promote physical health and nutrition. Such measures require both political will and funding to properly implement them - both of which are in short supply in the current environment.

Equally important is avoiding short-sighted policies that seek quick fixes where none are needed. Chief among these is a persistent attack on protections and incentives for the discovery of new medicines.

The European Commission is only the latest institution to approach health care from this perspective. Based on the council conclusions of June 2016, the commission has been preparing an economic analysis of the impact of incentives on access to medicines, with the aim of proposing legislation in 2018.

The logic goes that by weakening incentives extended to biopharmaceutical companies for the discovery of new medicines to treat, for example, pediatric and rare diseases, governments might save a few dollars or somehow increase access to these medicines.

My many years as a practicing doctor and public official - including a term as Austria's health minister - have shown me that this is a sorely misguided effort.

Specific incentives for the research and development of pediatric treatments have spurred the discovery of 1,800 new medicines, providing families with more options in caring for children with debilitating conditions like juvenile arthritis.

Furthermore, establishing incentives for rare disease treatments in 2000 has led to a 16-fold increased in new medicines approved by the European Medicines Agency.

Diminishing these incentives won't put more treatments into the hands of people who need them most. But it will make it harder to produce these numbers going forward. With more than 7,000 new treatments in development - including hundreds targeting chronic diseases - this a big risk to take.

The EC review threatens to undermine such incentives at a time when we need more medical innovation - not less - to turn the tide against chronic diseases.

While I've personally felt the frustration of struggling to contain rising health care costs, the role of these incentives is part of a century of medical innovation that has yielded unprecedented gains in quality of life.

Look at what has been accomplished in just the past few decades.

European life expectancy has risen by six years since the 1990s. HIV has become a treatable illness. Hepatitis C is curable in 90 percent of cases. And more half of patients diagnosed with cancer live another five years.

These advances are unambiguously the product of incentives for medical innovation.

Any effort to undermine them will only deter inventors and investors at a time when the science of innovation is becoming riskier and more expensive.

While the specter of chronic diseases is daunting, there is a clear path to victory. European member states must invest more in prevention and avoid policies that deter vital investments in future treatments and cures.

I hope that when Austria assumes the oresidency of European Commission in July, it will keep a clear focus on public health and embrace these positions with vigor.

The future of the European Union may well depend on it.

Andrea Kdolsky was Austria's minister of health and family affairs from 2007 to 2008.

Interview

Health inequalities are economic issue, says commissioner

Social and geographical inequalities in Europeans' health are one of the main challenges for the EU, says health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis. He calls on finance ministers to look at the consequences for their country's economies and competitiveness.

Focus

EU calls for better disease prevention

EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis is encouraging states to spend more to prevent diseases that weigh much on health systems.

Macron is confusing rigidity with strength

Jan Zahradil, EU Commission president Spitzenkandidat for the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, responds to Emmaneul Macron's European vision ahead of the May elections.

A compromise proposal for the Article 50 extension

At this week's summit, EU leaders should extend Article 50 until the May European elections. But they should postpone the effective date of the UK's withdrawal from EU rights, rules, and regulations for another year - to May 2020.

Catalan independence trial is widening Spain's divides

What is really needed is not the theatre of a rebellion trial, but a forensic examination of whether public funds were misused, and a process of dialogue and negotiation on how the Catalan peoples' right to self-determination can be satisfied.

My plan for defending rule of law in EU

EPP leader and prospective next EU Commission president Manfred Weber spells out his plan for dealing with recalcitrant EU member states - ahead of Wednesday's EPP meeting on the vexed issue of Hungary's Viktor Orban and Fidesz.

News in Brief

  1. EU leaders at summit demand more effort on disinformation
  2. Report: Corbyn to meet May on Monday for Brexit talks
  3. Petition against Brexit attracts 2.4m signatures
  4. Study: Brexit to cost EU citizens up to €40bn annually
  5. NGOs demand France halt Saudi arm sales
  6. Report: Germany against EU net-zero emissions target
  7. Former top EU official takes job at law firm
  8. Draft text of EU summit has Brexit extension until 22 May

Italy should capitalise on Brexit

Now that the UK is leaving, Italy can, and should, step up. It is the third largest country and economy in the EU. Spain and Poland follow, but they are significantly smaller economically and population-wise.

The Magnitsky Act - and its name

It is disappointing that so many MEPs in the Socialist and Green group caved in to Russian interests, in fear of challenging a plutocratic regime, by saying 'no' to naming the Magnitsky legislation by its rightful name: Magnitsky.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Latest News

  1. Italy takes China's new Silk Road to the heart of Europe
  2. What EU leaders agreed on climate - and what they mean
  3. Copyright and (another) new Brexit vote This WEEK
  4. EU avoids Brexit crash, sets new date for 12 April
  5. Campaigning commissioners blur the lines
  6. Slovakia puts squeeze on free press ahead of election
  7. EPP suspends Orban's Fidesz party
  8. Macron is confusing rigidity with strength

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  2. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  4. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  7. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us