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Time for a coherent EU approach to global health

The current Ebola crisis in West Africa is a stark reminder of the importance of putting the right to health high on the international development agenda, and nowhere more so than on the development agenda of the new European Commission, writes Emilie Peeters.

Official figures state that the outbreak has killed some 5,000 people to date but the World Health Organisation has indicated that real numbers might be much higher and could be nearer to 15,000. The region is facing a major health crisis which is rapidly evolving into a financial and humanitarian crisis as Ebola is crippling health systems and economies in its wake. It’s estimated that more than 200 health workers in the countries affected have lost their lives while providing health care to infected patients.

The leadership demonstrated by the EU so far has largely constituted financial support to help contain the disease. This is to be commended but in effect constitutes an emergency response and doesn’t translate to a political vision of how to address the underlying issues that this crisis has uncovered.

What these countries all have in common is weak health systems, due among other reasons to a lack of investment and human resources as well as long years spent recovering from conflict. Even before Ebola, the systems didn’t meet the needs of their citizens by a long chalk and far too many people had no access to the basic health services to which they are entitled. This was and remains true of marginalised and hard to reach groups in particular.

While the two epidemics are very different, parallels can be drawn with the HIV epidemic in its early stages in Africa where fear and misinformation prevailed. What the Ebola outbreak reveals once again is that strong public and community health systems are critical to stopping the spread of diseases, protecting health workers, building solidarity and to avoiding the need for coercive measures that only serve to drive the sick away from clinics. Three decades of experience have taught us that communities play an essential role in mobilising people to access health systems, particularly in the context of HIV.

So are we now losing sight of the lessons learned after 30 years spent combating another highly stigmatising virus? The new Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica, and the EU Ministers of Development would do well to ask themselves that question as they debate this latest public health crisis which has implications for EU borders.

More than four years after the adoption of the European Commission’s Communication on Global Health, the EU still hasn’t developed a programme for action to implement the strong policy commitments made. The very first conclusion highlighted the need to take action to improve health, reduce inequalities and increase protection against global health threats. Imagine if this document had been acted on in the intervening years, would we be looking at a very different scenario now with regards to Ebola?

It’s high time for a coherent EU approach to global health to ensure that everyone everywhere has equitable access to quality healthcare without incurring financial hardship. Special emphasis has to be put on reaching the poor and most marginalised to ensure that everyone can enjoy their right to health.

Commissioner Mimica has promised to reinforce the response to the Ebola epidemic. But more will be needed in the long term and a Communication on the Programme for Action would be one way to demonstrate the political will needed to invest in preventing such health crises. By prioritising strong public and community health systems, we will be far better equipped to bring disease outbreaks under control going forward.

Emilie Peeters is EU Policy Advisor with Stop AIDS Alliance


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