Global health threats such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and West Nile virus have given a booster shot to a proposal to create a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). In its final session before adjourning for the summer, the European Commission (EC) backed the plan, which must now be approved by the European Parliament.
The idea for such a center has been debated long and hard, but until recently most officials favored a virtual network of networks as opposed to a physical center. In the past 2 years, however, the anthrax scare and SARS drove home the importance of speed in dealing with public health threats. "We find ourselves using 19th century instruments to deal with 21st century threats," EC health commissioner David Byrne, who led the initiative, told reporters after the meeting last week.
Until the 1990s, the European Union left public health entirely in the hands of national agencies. In 1998, the European Parliament and Council of Ministers linked 15 national disease surveillance networks. But surveillance standards vary from one country to another. Moreover, the EC lacks the scientific and technical support it needs to decide on an E.U.-wide response, says Ronald Haigh, head of the EC's communicable diseases unit. When the E.U. admits 10 new member states next year, coordination will be even more complex.
Under the new proposal, the existing surveillance network would be transferred to ECDC, although responsibility for action would remain with the member states. The center would not employ many disease experts but could bring them in quickly when needed. It would provide technical assistance to member states--in the form of investigative teams, for instance--and act as a central hub for communications. The current plan calls for a staff of up to 100 and initial funding of about $6.4 million for 2005, increasing to $33.4 million in 2007.
Byrne would like to see the center up and running by 2005, and he urged the European Parliament and Council of Ministers to translate the proposal into swift legislative action. "Communicable diseases do not respect national borders," he said. The aim of the ECDC is to ensure that "everyone [is] pulling in the same direction."