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Germany

Protecting Europe from Future SARS-like Epidemics

Following the outbreak of the virulent SARS virus, the European Union plans to tighten its health structures by setting up a central authority to better coordinate European efforts in dealing with future epidemics.

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Fear of SARS -- a woman wearing a surgical mask in Hong Kong.

As SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spreads its deadly bacteria around the world, health authorities have been jolted into taking emergency measures and precautions to limit the spread of the pneumonia-like illness.

With the death toll now estimated at over 100 and some 2,700 people worldwide believed to have contracted the illness, the European Union is taking no chances.

EU issues travel warning

Speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday, EU Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner David Byrne urged EU citizens to avoid unnecessary trips to Asia -- especially ones with itineraries including China's Canton region and other areas where SARS is known to have had a severe impact.

Without specifically mentioning China's response to the illness, which has been criticized by the international community, Byrne hinted that spread of the potentially deadly virus could have been reduced if China had alerted the world to the disease earlier. "Earlier notifications to the WHO by those affected could have mitigated many of the effects," he said. "This is a key lesson for the future."

SARS was first detected in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong last November, but China only notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the new virus in mid-February this year. About 43 people in the Guangdong province alone are reported to have succumbed to the virus.

Byrne: Situation under control

Byrne emphasized that the EU had the deadly illness under control and that the situation in Europe was stable.

"All 15 member states have together registered 46 cases of illness, 19 probable SARS instances and 27 cases of suspicion, but no fatality as yet," he said. "It’s also important that till now there has been no local contraction of the disease within the European Union."

The EU’s top health official sought to assure members of parliament that the European Commission was confident of tackling the highly-contagious ailment with its existing early warning and response system (EWRS), which was first set up in 1999. EWRS belongs to the EU’s network for epidemiological surveillance and control of communicable diseases. The illness is believed to have spread to Europe via airline passengers arriving from Asia.

Cases of SARS infection have been reported in most major European countries, including Germany, which has had five reported cases according to WHO, France, Britain, Spain, Switzerland and Italy.

Multinational system required

Despite the EU’s insistence that it is well-equipped to deal with the health situation at hand, there is little doubt that if the illness developed into a full-fledged epidemic in Europe, the EU’s existing health and safety structures would be insufficient for tackling the problem.

Unlike its extensive defensive mechanisms for dealing with contagious animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth or the plague, Brussels has no corresponding framework in cases of human epidemics.

Underscoring the importance of a coordinated effort to deal with easily-transmitted human epidemics, Byrne said last month: "Cases like SARS demonstrate only too clearly that contagious diseases require a high level of preparedness across borders."

Central authority needed for consistency

The Commissioner is now pushing for the creation of a European Center for Disease Prevention and Control to coordinate EU member states’ surveillance of and reaction to outbreaks of epidemics. Byrne said he hoped the agency would be up and running by 2005.

"We need to establish a structure at European level that has the scope, the stability, and the capacity to respond to the threat from diseases in the longer term. It (the center) would aim to enhance surveillance, coordinate common responses and collaborate with member states, candidate countries and international organizations such as the WHO," Byrne said.

The Commissioner’s proposal is not new. The European Commission in Brussels has tried for some time now to reinforce its health safety and prevention authorities with additional powers.

At the same time, Byrne has stressed that the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control would not replace existing national health structures in member states. The European Center instead would be able to offer consistent travel information to all EU citizens, he said.

Brussels should take leading role

The consumer affairs spokeswoman for Germany’s ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD), Dagmar Roth-Behrendt has welcomed Byrne’s proposal.

At the same time, she stressed it was important for Brussels to take over responsibility for Europe-wide public health policy if epidemics in future were to be tackled effectively and for consistent health standards throughout the EU. Otherwise, Roth-Behrendt said, the body proposed by Byrne would be in danger of being nothing more than a mere "alibi center."

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