Thursday, October 18, 2007

Helsinki, 11-13th October
… for the Annual Conference of the
European Public Health Association. An especially busy few days, with a plenary speech to give, as well as three shorter presentations and a workshop to organise.
The presentations were on topics I have spoken about many times before – the mortality crisis in the former Soviet Union, the health of the Roma people, and the relationship between health and economic development.
The workshop was something I had agreed to organise in my role as a member of WHO’s European Advisory Committee on Health Research. In November 2008 health ministers from around the world will converge on Bamako, in Mali, to discuss the state of health research world wide. The 2008 Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health is a follow up to the 2004 conference held in Mexico. We wanted to make sure that, in this global discussion, Europe was not overlooked, both in terms of its interests and its potential contribution to the global health research agenda.
To my surprise, even though it meant missing out on lunch, about 50 people turned up and engaged in a lively and highly productive discussion. The key messages, which will appear later in a paper, were as follows.
First, we need to make sure that governments live up to the commitments they made in Mexico. There, they agreed:
* to commit to fund the necessary health research to ensure vibrant health systems and reduce inequity and social injustice,
* to establish and implement national health research policies,
* to promote activities to strengthen national health research systems, including the creation of informed decision makers, priority setting, research management, monitoring performance, adopting standards and regulations for high quality research and its ethical oversight, and ensuring community, nongovernmental organization, and patient participation in research governance, and
* to establish sustainable programmes to support evidence-based public health and health care delivery systems, and evidence-based health related policies.
It will be important to document what Europe’s governments have actually done in the intervening four years. The overwhelming consensus of those present was “not much”. Indeed, there was a widespread feeling that no new developments could be attributed directly to the Mexico meeting.
Second, while accepting the importance of issues such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and tobacco control, it was felt that these will be identified by every region in the world. Were there any specific issues that Europe would like to see in a global health research agenda? Three issues emerged: aging, migration, and alcohol.
Third, what can Europe contribute to the rest of the world? Here we identified expertise on the epidemiology and health system response to complex non-communicable diseases. These are rapidly growing in importance everywhere but often receive far too little attention.
The title I was given for my plenary was “The future of public health in a unified Europe”. I took the liberty of adding a question mark. Europe (or at least some parts of it) is now clearly united. Ten former communist countries, divided from the rest of Europe for 45 years by the Iron Curtain, are now part of the European Union. Yet it takes more to unite a continent than to pull down a wall.
Europe’s population is changing. Most obviously, it is aging and, as a consequence, needs more young people to maintain its workforce. With birth rates at a record low, this can only occur through migration. For the past half century, western Europe has been based on a particular social model, with consensus on the need for the rich to support the poor, the young to support the old, and the well to support the ill. This is very different in the USA. One obvious reason is that rich white people have often been reluctant to pay for poor black people, something that was all too apparent in the images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. As Europe becomes more ethnically diverse, will it place strains on our commitment to solidarity? The newspapers I read on the flight to Helsinki certainly did nothing to allay my concers (see picture).

Then, how will our children respond to the much greater numbers of older people, especially when they realise that we have been borrowing from them for decades, through unfunded pension schemes and ill-thought out public private partnerships, such as the build today, pay (many times over) tomorrow UK Private Finance Initiative. In my talk, which will also be published in due course, I argued that we need to think about these issues now, because the alternative of a fractured, unforgiving society, where everyone must fend for themselves, is not a world that any of us want to live in.

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