"Shame on us, that we are not measles free!" These were the words of EU Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis this morning, in response to MEPs' concerns about the current measles outbreak and alarmingly low vaccination coverage rates in certain European countries.
According to the latest figures by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), thirty-two deaths due to measles were reported in the EU between March 2017 and February 2018 with seventeen in Romania alone, where vaccine coverage for measles remains at the lowest in Europe along with Greece, Italy and France.
After months of backdoor discussions, policy roundtables and calls to action, public health has finally soared to the top of the Brussels agenda this week, with the European Commission launching new initiatives on two of the hottest topics in town: vaccines and digital health. Both topics have been subject to heated discussions over the past months. And, with European Immunisation Week in full swing, it could not have been a more opportune moment for the Commission to demonstrate how it is ramping up EU action on vaccines. The Communication and the draft Council Recommendation on Strengthened Cooperation against Vaccine Preventable Diseases include specific measures to:
- Fight vaccine hesitancy, especially among vulnerable groups by introducing routine checks and training healthcare workers, by establishing a vaccination information portal to address safety concerns as well as by convening a Coalition for Vaccination to fight against fake news and exchange best practices
- Coordinate vaccination schedules by putting into action national and regional vaccination plans by 2020, including a target of at least 95% vaccination coverage for measles, and the launch of a European Information Sharing System
- Tackle shortages of supply by developing a virtual EU data warehouse on vaccine stocks
But MEPs were keen to also point out missed opportunities, demanding even more courageous steps against anti-microbial resistance, guaranteed safety and transparency as well as trust. The Commissioner reassured that these issues will remain high on the agenda and that dedicated actions will set out to tackle them in the future. The Commission plans to assess implementation progress every three years and publish a report on The State of Confidence in Vaccines in the EU.
The Commission has also finally launched its long-awaited Strategy for Enabling the Digital Transformation of Health and Care for the benefit of patients across Europe through ‘meaningful’ digital innovation. As Incisive Health’s recent report on public attitudes towards eHealth shows, there is growing appetite for digital health services in Europe. The new strategy sets out concrete next steps for the European Commission to respond to citizens wishes by:
- Strengthening citizens’ rights over their health data by boosting the exchange of electronic health records across Europe
- Unlocking ‘big data’ for research, disease prevention and personalised medicine by sharing data and infrastructure, especially in the fields of genomics, rare and infectious diseases
- Empowering citizens to manage chronic conditions through digital health tools by supporting the exchange of best practices, capacity building and technical assistance for health and care authorities – a clear shift towards person-centred healthcare in Europe
Again, MEPs suggested the strategy could have gone further and faster. Given that digital health is still in its infancy, the initiative has nevertheless set itself some ambitious goals, which raise questions about transparency and reliability of digital services. MEPs also pushed for courageous action to ensure universal access to treatment.
Although at first glance the vaccines and digital health initiatives might seem distinct, on closer look they have more in common than one might think. The proposed introduction of electronic vaccination records and the development of electronic health records exchanges across Europe both hold substantive potential for effective surveillance of vaccine preventable diseases and for increasing vaccination coverage. However, it is sure that there will be resistance both from governments and from citizens who are bound to ask questions about data privacy and safety. Questions to address also include the interoperability of electronic immunisation information systems and standardisation. But this week’s package is just the beginning of something that will hopefully turn into a powerful tool to limit unnecessary deaths from infectious disease across Europe.
Both initiatives need to tackle the great health inequalities that exist between EU countries. And while vaccination may have received most media attention this week, digital is the one that holds the potential to substantially transform Europe’s health and care infrastructure. Europe will only be able to unlock this potential by working across boundaries, and by taking the European public along on the journey.