Opinion: How the EU is battling against threats to the world’s health

European Union flags in front of the Berlaymont building in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by: T P / CC BY-NC-ND

The numbers speak for themselves: Noncommunicable diseases — cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases — kill over 40 million people each year, accounting for close to three-quarters of all deaths globally. Some 80 percent of NCD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries — the same countries that face a high burden of diseases such as HIV and AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

Such a human disaster is not only bad news in terms of health outcomes, it is also a major blow to the economies of countries striving for economic and social development and for the improvement in their populations’ living conditions. An estimated $47 trillion will be lost worldwide between 2011-2025 as a consequence of continuous underinvestment in the prevention and control of NCDs.

Today, we are fully aware that NCDs are associated with poverty and inequality within and across countries. NCD prevention and control will require a big investment, yet a high return can be expected in human and economic terms.

Against this backdrop, the international community has committed to tackling the growing burden of NCDs through the adoption of an NCD-specific target as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Target 3.4 aims to reduce premature mortality from NCDs by one-third by 2030. The fight against NCDs has now become a major development priority.

The EU is fighting NCDs

The European Union is strongly committed to playing a leading role in the global movement against this emerging threat. We are supporting partner countries' efforts to maximize health benefits on an equitable basis by strengthening health systems and policies, as we do for example when working with governments in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Morocco, or Zimbabwe through dedicated health sector support.

We are convinced that such a systemic approach is required in order to fight against NCDs. It is also very much aligned with the recent recommendations of the World Health Organization’s Independent High-level Commission on NCDs. Prevention and control require resilient and sustainable health systems with robust primary care infrastructures, established through coordinated action in many areas, such as finance, trade and industry, justice, education, labor and employment, agriculture, local government, and others.

“Tackling the burden of NCDs requires strong leadership in more than just the health sector alone.” 

— Neven Mimica, European commissioner for international development and cooperation

Work in progress

We also work through regional and global programs. Myanmar, for example, is benefitting from the EU-sponsored program to strengthen and reinforce the work of public health institutes implemented in eight low-income countries. Through dedicated traineeships and seminars, we help to strengthen the capacity of health staff in hospitals. This has also led to the drafting of a national strategy on NCDs that has been since rolled out countrywide. Our major objective is to fully integrate NCD services into primary health care. We believe that involving all civil society actors is fundamental to achieve this goal.

In Bangladesh, the same global initiative has led to the launch of a public health think tank, which constitutes a policy advocacy group. It gathers scientists, academics, and civil society representatives who work together on improving access to health care in hard-to-reach areas, as well as on the urban poor and those suffering from NCDs. A project called Share4Health strengthens both the capacity of public health institutes, and of policy advocates and decision-makers to promote evidence-informed policy focusing on urban health and NCDs.

The importance of global alliances

At the global level, the EU is bringing together global, national, and local partners to reinforce health systems and to promote a systemic approach in the fight against NCDs. Together with Luxembourg and Ireland, the EU is supporting WHO’s universal health coverage partnership — a multilayered initiative aimed at advancing policy dialogue on strategic planning and health systems governance, developing health financing strategies and supporting their implementation, as well as enabling effective development cooperation in countries. The partnership has been activated in 36 partner countries in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Another area of work is tobacco control. The EU is a strong supporter of WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a successful example of international convention in the public health arena. We have also played an active role in the context of the Friends of the UN Interagency Taskforce on NCDs that has proven effective in delivering tangible results, such as the dramatic reduction in the use of tobacco in India.

Public-private partnerships

In line with the recommendations of WHO’s Independent High-level Commission on NCDs and of the Addis-Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development, the European Commission firmly believes in the role PPPs can play in tackling the challenge posed by NCDs. As official development assistance is only part of the solution, an increasing number of PPPs are now being launched in this area. This opens up an innovative field of cooperation where the EC will have the possibility to step up its engagement in this field in the future through the EU External Investment Plan or other initiatives.  

Showing its will to live up to its commitments, the EU is actively contributing to the achievement of target 3.4 of the SDGs. We are currently working very closely with the Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States and WHO on an ambitious health system strengthening program, within which a strong focus will be put on fighting NCDs. The details of this program still need to be finalized and will be made public in due course later this year.

2018: A decisive year

Tackling the burden of NCDs requires strong leadership in more than just the health sector alone. The root causes of NCDs are interlinked with other sectors such as agriculture and nutrition; infrastructures and cities; and environment and climate change. NCD prevention and control strategies must therefore be multisectoral in nature. This calls for a new approach from our side: Development professionals and leaders should adopt this cross-sectorial stance in their respective organizations.

2018 will be a decisive year in the fight against NCDs, as the third high-level meeting on NCDs will take place in September 2018, in New York. It is also vital to feature the fight against NCDs in the debates on the post-2020 period that are currently unfolding in Brussels and in the other European capitals.

Let us make sure that we make the most of these opportunities to create the conditions for fulfilling our global promise of reaching the SDGs’ targets, including the target on NCDs, by 2030.

For more coverage of NCDs, visit the Taking the Pulse series here.

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About the author

  • Nevenmimica

    Neven Mimica

    Neven Mimica, a Croatian politician and diplomat, is the EU commissioner for international cooperation and development. From 2008 to 2011 he was deputy speaker and chairman of the European Integration Committee in the Croatian Parliament. He was then appointed deputy prime minister responsible for internal, foreign and European policy and became Croatia’s first commissioner, in charge of consumer policy, in 2013. Mimica is married with two children.