Europe’s reprieve from SARS virus prompts thought

Brussels – European Union Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne, in an interview with Kathimerini in Brussels last week, said that severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has been successfully contained but at the same time expressed hope that the disease would lead to a truly integrated EU health policy, at least with respect to crises such as the current one. Europe, he said, has been preparing for years for such an eventuality, especially through its network on infectious diseases which has its headquarters at the Commission offices in Luxembourg. The network cooperates with the authorities of the member states and the World Health Organization (WHO). «Today, it is closely monitoring the SARS issue and issuing guidelines on how to deal with such situations, with the aim of providing the fullest and fastest possible information for everyone, both experts and the general public via the Internet,» the Commissioner explained. A subcommittee of the network was set up recently to focus exclusively on SARS. Meeting for the first time in Luxembourg on May 13, the subcommittee has already prepared a questionnaire for member states. On the basis of this questionnaire, the Council of Health Ministers will be provided with a report on the course of the epidemic in Europe. The issue will be discussed anew and further measures will be considered. «I have to say that the medical world in Europe has responded splendidly to the disease and I must note that we haven’t had a single death [from SARS] on European soil, and only one case of infection. In any case, the member states are now on the highest state of alert,» said Byrne. «As in every such crisis, every epidemic, some time elapses before the authorities react, before they realize the extent of the problem and mobilize. However, now all the member states know what they must do and are following the relevant directives,» he added. (In total, these amount to 150 different actions and means of response.) «We were lucky as well. For a start, we had been warned, in contrast to Canada which had not had any warning of the epidemic,» said Byrne adding that Europe had had some time, albeit days, to prepare both specialists and ordinary people. Canada did not. «In addition, the cooperation between health services in Europe was excellent,» according to the commissioner. «We are also fortunate in our misfortune» in that the disease is only transmitted by individuals who already display symptoms. Thus, the crew of an airplane that has a suspected case on board will inform the airport of destination, where it will be met by a specialist, the patient will be transported to hospital, and the names and telephone numbers of all the other passengers will be taken. «The health services will call them daily for two weeks to check that they haven’t developed symptoms as well,» concluded Byrne. EU health services are in close contact with WHO, which has voiced fears of the appearance of many such diseases. «One of their officials is on secondment at our services,» Byrne said. The global health body says the disease has not peaked yet, especially in China, «and that’s why we have to be constantly on the alert.» At present, the European Commission and the EU generally do not have any particular say in the realm of health. But infectious diseases have preoccupied David Byrne for some time. Though some states have specialized services to monitor infectious diseases and to mobilize against them, he pointed out that other member states do not. Neither do these services exist on a European level. «As the European Union, we have many more institutional tools to deal with animal diseases than we do for threats to human health,» Byrne remarked. Therefore, a proposal is being drawn up that would set up a European center for the monitoring and control of infectious diseases which will be submitted for approval by a plenary session of the Commission within the coming weeks. «It won’t be a large center,» admitted Byrne, «since there are already many such services within the member states, especially the bigger ones.» Its mission will be to support and supplement these national services, enhance supervision of the international situation and improve the ability to immediately warn at the appearance of any threat to public health. It will also coordinate member state response, enabling unified action and common checks. To this end, it will conduct epidemiological studies, for example, or supply scientific advisory services to the member states and the Commission. Byrne also felt the center could be in charge of a network of «reference laboratories,» which would also increase the EU’s research capabilities. Finally, it would cooperate closely with both member states and international bodies such as WHO. «It’s an important initiative and conditions are ripe for it,» Byrne declared. «Don’t forget we often have flu epidemics, with many more cases than SARS. We thus need to be prepared in order to react directly in case a new, perhaps unknown, infectious disease appears.» Existing jurisdiction could be extended to allow the Commission to submit legislation on combating infectious diseases, especially in crisis situations. During the foot-and-mouth outbreak, intrastate and interstate transportation of animals was banned, with the result that the epidemic was largely confined to Britain. «Of course, when it comes to humans, a ban on travel is not lightly imposed and surely is something that should be decided on at a national level, first and foremost,» the commissioner conceded. A country that witnesses an outbreak of disease will obviously take measures. «But in a Europe of 15 or 25 or 27 states, it is conceivable that not every state would agree with the necessity for such measures.» In that case, Byrne said, «it would be a good thing, in cooperation with the Council of Ministers of course…, to have the ability to ensure the restriction, or complete a ban on movement» when the situation so demands. «That is impossible today,» Byrne noted. «If a state disagrees with such a decision, the decision cannot be taken. And we have to be able to say to the member state in question, ‘Assist us, or otherwise we will impose it [the ban].’ «I’ve already discussed it, unofficially, with many ministers on the Council of Health Ministers and I believe most… agree with me.» But SARS has forced politicians to take the issue of infectious diseases more seriously. The health commissioner stressed the need to broaden EU jurisdiction in the health sector. «The reaction was positive,» he said.