Friday, December 8, 2023

Europe’s plan to beat cancer

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to Sonja Sievers during a visit to a bio-tech laboratory in Dortmund, Germany. The laboratory works in the research for agents against cancer and autoimmune deceases. 

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Every year 3.5 million people across Europe are diagnosed with cancer, but their chances of survival depend on their location. The Commission hopes to bridge those gaps following the official launch of the bloc’s action plan to beat cancer, whose foundation will be theoretical Europe-wide equality when it comes to prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and care – all of which would provide a solid basis for battling cancer across the continent.

Identifying the gaps

Cancer accounts for 26% of all deaths in the bloc, 40% of which are cases that are preventable if treated properly. Fighting the disease, however, requires significant progress and the bloc has to go further, the Commission noted during the launch of the action plan.

The first step in this process would be to identify the gaps in Brussels’ healthcare policies and fill them with a programme that is, above all, inclusive of all of the 27 members of the EU.

“We are not ready to accept the idea that we are not doing our utmost,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Disparities across the EU, in terms of access to cancer services, was mentioned as the bloc’s foremost problem, which includes prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and palliative care for cancer patients as there is currently no common EU framework for combatting the disease.

A woman with cervical cancer in Romania is 16 times more likely to die than a woman patient living in Italy, von der Leyen highlighted. The dire situation in Eastern Europe was at the heart of the discussions, due to major inequalities in terms of access to medicines and therapies, compared to Western Europe.

Tackling every key stage of the disease

According to the Commission’s plan, each step in the fight against cancer should be in compliance with three main principles: 1) Every cancer patient, no matter where they come from, should have equal opportunities to gain access to treatments; 2) Prevention, early diagnosis, treatment, and plans for life after surviving cancer will be based on research and innovation; 3) European residents will enjoy affordable access to new therapies, efficient palliative care, and facilitated health insurance.

Another major point in the Commission’s presentation was its emphasis on lifestyle as it pertains to an individual’s overall health. Promoting sports, improved labelling for healthy foods, and educating children about a healthier diet were presented by Brussels as being pivotal when it comes to improving daily habits which could lower cancer risks.

In line with the von der Leyen Commission’s zero pollution ambition, Brussels believes that it is also essential that the EU’s cancer plan addresses air, water and soil pollution as this would reduce people’s exposure to carcinogens in the workplace.

Combatting cancer, according to von der Leyen, extends beyond lung and breast cancer as almost 15,000 women in Europe die from cervical cancer every year. This statistic has prompted von der Leyen to call for increased screening procedures and vaccinations to beat the HPV virus, the leading cause behind cervical cancer.

Cancer cases across Europe is on the rise and by 2035 the number of cancer patients in the EU will double and make cancer the prime cause of death in Europe, surpassing cardiovascular disease.

Research and innovation

The budget allocated for Brussels’ prevention programme accounts only for 3% of its total health budget, but a significant percentage of the money that will be made available will be part of the Horizon 2020 programme, the EU’s biggest research and innovation initiative.

In order to take up the fight against cancer, the EU believes innovative treatment methods need to be easily accessible to patients. Deploying modern technologies is of vital importance, as well as the use of Artificial Intelligence, both of which could significantly improve the rates of early diagnosis.

Von der Leyen, who reiterated on World Cancer Day that Europe’s latest initiative is a personal fight as she was only 13 when her younger sister died of a reticulosarcoma, announced that the European Commission is setting up an open Health Data Space to share crucial information in the linkage between research, diagnosis and cancer care.

Providing for those in need

EU officials have insisted that greater collaboration among the bloc’s members is essential in the fight against cancer. ‘‘This is a moral obligation that no cancer patient needs to fight alone,” said Loucas Fourlas, a Cypriot MEP from the European People’s Party and Chair of the MEPs Against Cancer Group.

“Secrecy, fear, uncertainty, marginalisation and stigma” are all common amongst cancer patients, and should be stripped away and replaced with dignity and hope, said the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides while adding that cancer patients need an environment where they will not be afraid to come forward about their condition.

For the time being, Brussels is spending a lot of its political capital on talking about big ambitions regarding its approach to fighting cancer, all of which will need generous funding, commitment, innovation, and transparency. The exact amount of funds to be allocated to the fight has not yet been decided, as the bloc is mired in a spat over the budget negotiations.

Charles Michel, the EU Council’s president, has already started meetings with EU leaders to facilitate a consensus. The EU’s 27 heads of states will also gather in an emergency meeting on February 20 to resolve the Multiannual Financial Framework stalemate.

At this point, the plan moving forward will see Europe’s fight against cancer campaign is slated to be launched by the end of the year after extensive consultations with stakeholders and the general public at large.

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