European countries commit to accelerate action to protect people from health emergencies together

World Health Organization - Regional Office for Europe

Sustained investment, mutual learning and support, and regular monitoring of progress – ministers of health and high-level delegates identified these as critical to scaling up health emergency preparedness and response in the WHO European Region.

The priorities and actions compiled in the outcome summary of the ministerial consultation and high-level meeting held on 12–14 February 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey, will accelerate coordinated action to protect people from health emergencies of any type.

“This meeting shows that we have unprecedented momentum to translate our political commitments into action,” said Dr Nedret Emiroglu, Director of Programme Management and Director of the Division of Health Emergencies and Communicable Diseases at WHO/Europe.

“No single organization, no single sector and no single country can do it alone; we need everybody on board for joint action and accountability, and we need to make sure that all sectors and all parts of society, including communities, are part of the solution,” she explained.

More than 150 European delegates gathered in Istanbul to share challenges and best practices. Together they charted a path to operationalize the Action plan to improve public health preparedness and response in the WHO European Region, which Member States agreed upon at the 68th session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe.

Europe’s vulnerability to wide-ranging hazards persists

Diseases can spread at the speed of regional airlines, and people fleeing emergencies often cross international frontiers. This can have a domino effect on countries and regions – even those that are not directly impacted by emergencies. Recent striking examples include outbreaks of Ebola and Zika viruses, and the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Health systems in Europe have shown that they can manage the importation of diseases like haemorrhagic fevers. European countries on the front line of migration are taking steps to provide access to health services for new arrivals. The collaboration between Turkey and WHO offers a particularly strong example of the provision of health services to refugees with similar standards as those for resident citizens.

However, the Region remains vulnerable to a wide range of hazards, such as outbreaks of measles and West Nile virus, antimicrobial resistance, infections from contaminated food and water, floods and earthquakes, conflicts and terrorist attacks.

Every year, WHO/Europe receives more than 20 000 warnings of all-hazard public health threats. Of these, 2000 require the Organization to conduct formal assessments, and about 50 – or one every week – need a response.

These wide-ranging hazards beg the question: how ready are Europe and the world to respond to health crises? The Region’s preparedness for the next influenza pandemic is particularly important. To date, fewer than 1 in 3 countries in the Region have revised their pandemic influenza plans since the 2009 pandemic, and influenza vaccination uptake has been steadily declining.

The meeting in Istanbul aimed to find collective solutions to the increasingly demanding crises facing the Region, and to strengthen preparedness for emergencies of any type as a collective responsibility.

Investing in preparedness pays back

One thing all emergencies have in common is that their impact can be greatly reduced by investing in preparedness. WHO’s case for investment leaves no space for doubt: every US$ 1 invested in health emergency preparedness sees a return of over US$ 8, and a 5-year investment is projected to save 1.5 million human lives and produce US$ 240 billion of economic gain.

This investment pays back in multiple ways. In addition to saving lives, it protects societies and economies, strengthens health systems, and contributes to WHO’s global efforts to protect 1 billion more people worldwide from health emergencies. This also helps pave the way to the achievement of several Sustainable Development Goals.

“The European Region has the expertise and know-how, and together we need to scale them up through political and financial commitment to make Europe and the world safer for our people,” said Dr Emiroglu. WHO works closely with countries in the Region to strengthen their capacities to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from all types of health emergencies.

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