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European Health Union: Stronger crisis preparedness and response for Europe

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European Commission is taking the first steps towards building the European Health Union announced by President von der Leyen in her State of the Union address. The Commission is putting forward a set of proposals to strengthen the EU’s health security framework, and to reinforce the crisis preparedness and response role of key EU agencies. In order to step up the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and future health emergencies, more coordination at EU level is needed. Drawing lessons from the current crisis, today’s proposals will ensure stronger preparedness and response during the current and future health crises.

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen stated: “Our aim is to protect the health of all European citizens. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for more coordination in the EU, more resilient health systems, and better preparation for future crises. We are changing the way we address cross-border health threats. Today, we start building a European Health Union, to protect citizens with high quality care in a crisis, and equip the Union and its Member States to prevent and manage health emergencies that affect the whole of Europe.

Vice-President for Promoting the European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said: “Today, we are taking a big, meaningful step towards a genuine EU Health Union. We are strengthening our common crisis management to prepare and respond to serious cross border threats to health. Our EU agencies need to be equipped with stronger mandates to better protect EU citizens. To fight the COVID-19 pandemic and future health emergencies, more coordination with more efficient tools at EU level is the only way forward.

Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food safety said: “Health is more than ever an essential concern for our citizens. In times of crisis, citizens rightfully expect the EU to take a more active role. Today we are reinforcing the foundations for a more secure, better-prepared and more resilient EU in the area of health. This will be a significant change for the capacity to respond collectively. The European Health Union is all about preparing for and facing up to common health threats together, as a Union. We need to do this in order to meet the expectations of our citizens.

Today’s proposals focus on revamping the existing legal framework for serious cross border threats to health, as well as reinforcing the crisis preparedness and response role of key EU agencies, namely the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

A stronger EU health security framework

To create a more robust mandate for coordination by the Commission and EU agencies, the Commission is today proposing a new Regulation on serious cross-border threats to health. The new framework will:

  • Strengthen preparedness: EU health crisis and pandemic preparedness plan and recommendations will be developed for the adoption of plans at national levels, coupled with comprehensive and transparent frameworks for reporting and auditing. The preparation of national plans would be supported by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and other EU agencies. The plans would be audited and stress tested by the Commission and EU agencies.
  • Reinforce surveillance: A strengthened, integrated surveillance system will be created at EU level, using artificial intelligence and other advanced technological means.
  • Improve data reporting: Member States will be required to step up their reporting of health systems indicators (e.g. hospital beds availability, specialised treatment and intensive care capacity, number of medically trained staff etc.).
  • The declaration of an EU emergency situation would trigger increased coordination and allow for the development, stockpiling and procurement of crisis relevant products.

Stronger and more operational EU Agencies

The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the European Medicines Agency have been at the forefront of the EU’s work to address COVID-19 since the outbreak of the pandemic. However, COVID-19 has shown that both agencies need to be reinforced and equipped with stronger mandates to better protect EU citizens and address cross border health threats.

The ECDC’s mandate will be reinforced so that it may support the Commission and Member States in the following areas:

  • epidemiological surveillance via integrated systems enabling real-time surveillance
  • preparedness and response planning, reporting and auditing
  • provision of non-binding recommendations and options for risk management
  • capacity to mobilise and deploy EU Health Task Force to assist local response in Member States
  • building a network of EU reference laboratories and a network for substances of human origin

The European Medicines Agency’s mandate will be reinforced so that it can facilitate a coordinated Union-level response to health crises by:

  • monitoring and mitigating the risk of shortages of critical medicines and medical devices
  • providing scientific advice on medicines which may have the potential to treat, prevent or diagnose the diseases causing those crises
  • coordinating studies to monitor the effectiveness and safety of vaccines
  • coordinating clinical trials.

The Commission is also today setting out the main elements of the future Health Emergency Response Authority (HERA), to be proposed by the end of 2021. Such a structure would be an important new element to support a better EU level response to cross-border health threats.

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Escalation of violence in Gaza

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Destruction in Gaza following an Israeli strike (file photo) UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

The ongoing and serious escalation of violence in and around Gaza between Palestinian militants and Israel has claimed the lives of 13 Palestinians by Israeli airstrikes, including a 5-year-old child and one woman, informed Lynn Hastings, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the territory.

In a statement published on Saturday, Ms. Hastings expressed her grave concern for the situation that has left more than 100 Palestinians injured, as well as 7 Israelis.

Residential areas in both Gaza and Israel have also been hit and 31 families in Gaza are now homeless.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is already dire and can only worsen with this most recent escalation.   The hostilities must stop to avoid more deaths and injuries of civilians in Gaza and Israel. The principles of international humanitarian law including those of distinction, precaution and proportionality must be respected by all parties”, she urged.

Basic services in danger

Ms. Hastings warned that fuel for the Gaza Power Plant is due to run out this Saturday and electricity has already been cut.

“The continued operation of basic service facilities such as hospitals, schools, warehouses, and designated shelters for internally displaced persons is essential and now at risk”, she cautioned.

The Humanitarian Coordinator added that movement and access of humanitarian personnel, for critical medical cases, and for essential goods, including food and fuel into Gaza, must not be impeded so that humanitarian needs can be met. 

She also underscored that Israeli authorities and Palestinian armed groups must immediately allow the United Nations and its humanitarian partners to bring in fuel, food, and medical supplies and to deploy humanitarian personnel in accordance with international principles.

“I reiterate the United Nations Special Coordinator’s appeal on all sides for an immediate de-escalation and halt to the violence, to avoid destructive ramifications, particularly for civilians”, Ms. Hastings concluded.

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Nuclear-free world is possible, test-ban treaty chief says

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Nuclear weapons will continue to pose a risk to humanity unless countries fully adhere to the treaty that prohibits their testing, a senior UN official said at a press conference in New York on Friday. 

Journalists were briefed by Robert Floyd, Executive Secretary of the body that oversees the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which opened for signature 25 years ago but has yet to enter into force because it requires ratification by a handful of key countries, which have nuclear capabilities. 

“Once in force, the CTBT will serve as an essential element of a nuclear weapons-free world. In order to achieve this world, we all aspire to, a universal and effectively verifiable prohibition on nuclear testing is a fundamental necessity,” he said. 

World at risk 

Mr. Floyd was speaking against the backdrop of the latest nuclear non-proliferation conference, which began this week at UN Headquarters after two years of pandemic-related delays. 

Countries are reviewing progress towards implementing the 50-year-old Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

At the opening on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world was “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation, away from nuclear annihilation”

“Until we have full adherence to the CTBT, nuclear testing and the proliferation of nuclear weapons will continue to pose unacceptable risk to humanity,” said Mr. Floyd. 

Drop in testing 

The CTBT complements the non-proliferation treaty, said Mr. Floyd, and it has already made a difference in the world. 

“We’ve gone from over 2,000 nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1996, to fewer than 12 tests since the treaty opened for signature,” he said. “Only one country has tested this millennium.” 

The treaty has also received near-universal support. So far, 186 countries have signed the CTBT, and 174 have ratified it, four in the last six months alone.  

However, entry into force requires that the treaty must be signed and ratified by 44 specific nuclear technology holder countries, eight of which have yet to ratify it: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan and the United States. 

Asked about these countries, Mr. Floyd replied “they have their own calculus and strategic objectives and geopolitical considerations as to whether they feel free to move forward”, adding that they all support the CTBT and its objectives. 

Helping nations 

Mr. Floyd also reported on the activities of the organization that promotes the treaty, which he heads. 

The CTBTO, as it has known, has built a state-of-the-art verification system to detect nuclear explosions, capable of 24/7 monitoring.  

Staff also train inspectors from Member States so that they are ready to conduct on-site verifications once the treaty enters into force. Furthermore, countries use CTBTO data for civilian and scientific applications, such as tsunami warning systems and other university research. 

“Even without having entered into force, the CTBT is already helping to save lives in countries around the world,” said Mr. Floyd.  “Even those that have not yet ratified the treaty are benefiting from this global collaboration and technological expertise.” 

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Horn of Africa faces most ‘catastrophic’ food insecurity in decades

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A child of seven months is being examined for malnutrition due to the severe drought in Somalia. © UNICEF/Sebastian Rich

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday that the Greater Horn of Africa is experiencing one of the worst hunger crises of the last 70 years.  

More than 37 million people are facing acute hunger, with approximately seven million children under the age of five acutely malnourished in the region.  

While finding food and safe water is the absolute priority, WHO said that ensuring a strong health emergency response is needed to avert preventable disease and deaths.  

The UN agency is calling for $123.7 million to respond to rising health needs and prevent a food crisis from turning into a health crisis.  

“The situation is already catastrophic, and we need to act now,” said Ibrahima Soce Fall, WHO Assistant Director General for Emergencies Response. “We cannot continue in this underfunding crisis”. 

Severe drought  

The Horn of Africa includes Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya.  

Climate change, conflict, rising food prices and the COVID-19 pandemic have compounded one of the worst droughts in the region in recent decades, according to the WHO appeal

“There are now four seasons where the rain didn’t come as predicted and a fifth season is estimated to also fail. Places where there is drought the problem keeps worsening and worsening,” said WHO Incident Manager Sophie Maes.  

“In other places like South Sudan, there have been three years of consecutive flooding with almost 40 per cent of the country being flooded. And we are looking at something that is going to get worse in the near future.”  

Hunger crisis 

Over 37 million people in the region are projected to reach the third level of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale (IPC3) and higher in the coming months.  

This means that the population is in crisis, and only marginally able to meet minimum food needs by depleting essential livelihood assets or through crisis-coping strategies. 

The effects of drought are particularly severe in eastern and southern Ethiopia, eastern and northern Kenya, and southern and central Somalia.  

Food insecurity in South Sudan has reached the most extreme levels since independence in 2011, with 8.3 million people comprising 75 per cent of the population facing severe food insecurity. 

Cost of inaction 

Acute malnutrition leads to increased migration as populations move in search of food and pasture, according to WHO. 

And disruptions often result in deteriorating hygiene and sanitation as outbreaks of infectious diseases, like cholera, measles, and malaria, are already on the rise.  

Moreover, weak vaccination coverage and health services with insufficient resources could see a widespread increase in the number of disease outbreaks in country and across borders.

Care for severely malnourished children with medical complications will be severely impacted and result in high child mortality rates.  

Disruptions in access to health care can further increase morbidity and mortality, as emergency conditions force populations to modify their health-seeking behaviour and prioritize access to life-saving resources such as food and water.

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