Article written

  • on 16.10.2014
  • at 12:00 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

Roberto Bertollini (WHO): ‘Poor public research investments are behind global health emergencies such as Ebola’ 0

Brussels – As the Ebola outbreak death toll rises in Africa and western countries, the World Health Organization Representative to the EU, Roberto Bertollini, sheds some light on the link between budget cuts and the spread of the emergency. ‘If we stop investing on research, in a few decades there will not be antibiotics for common diseases’, he tells

So far, Ebola has killed more than 4.000 people in West Africa and very recently, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European director, Zsuzsanna Jakab, said that Ebola’s continuous spread across Europe is inevitable. How is the WHO Office in Brussels is engaged in the global fight against the outbreak? What are the actions implemented by your office? What is your role in this fight against Ebola?

Our role is mainly to liaise between the WHO and European Institutions, NGOs, think tanks and other actors. In general terms we make sure that policies, data, proposals and strategies are well-known. We ensure that our colleagues in different locations, both at country level but also in Geneva, Copenhagen and other offices are aware of what is happening here on health policies and decisions taken both in a development perspective but also in relation to EU countries.

With respect to the Ebola crisis, what we are now doing is mostly following the emergency committee, which meets regularly and is coordinated by the European External Action Service and the European Commission Directorates-General for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid. We make sure we provide European Institutions with the most updated figures and information on what is happening. We work to mobilize the attention and the support of the European Parliament’s Members. Our Regional Director will speak at the European Parliament on 5th of November to raise awareness on the current situation, on what the needs are and how the Parliament can actually help.

We work with the former and new European Commission to create awareness on the type of problems associated with Ebola in both Europe and North America, but particularly in the affected countries. When our Director spoke about the possibility of Ebola spreading in Europe, she was mentioning it to make sure that people were aware that this was going to happen eventually. Yet, the core of the problem lies in Africa and there we have to act to avoid the situation getting even more uncontrollable than it is now.

The crisis response to Ebola. How did the change of Institutions affect the crisis response? Was this an obstacle?

I do not think so. The former Commissioners and authorities were responding very quickly, both DEVCO, ECHO, SANCO and the EIS. I do not think this change has caused any delays during this crisis, as the structure of the Commission remains unchanged except for the top management.

The European Union is acting to help African countries face the Ebola emergency. What should be the priorities of the EU in supporting these countries?

First, we need to provide all the necessary equipment and means for people on the ground to be able to both treat the patients and try to control the disease as much as possible. We should also support healthcare professionals there: one of the issues is the lack of health professionals on the ground as people are either dying or disappearing. We need to mobilize the international community of healthcare workers to go on the ground. In order to do so we have to assure these people that in case they get sick they can be immediately evacuated and provided with the best possible treatment. In addition to that, we have to learn from this disease: if we do not normally support African countries in developing their healthcare system and professionals, providing them with decent salaries and working conditions, these problems will arouse and this is outrageous. If you look at life expectancy rates in different countries before Ebola, you can notice that the lowest one is in Sierra Leone, so this is not by chance.

This crisis is a sort of alarm for the world, if we don’t address the problems in time, they will affect everybody. It is both a question of international solidarity and of self-interest. People forget this and I think we have to emphasize these aspects because the ethical call for solidarity does not help too much, many people are not listening to that.

Nowadays, in times of crisis, development aid is questioned in Europe. Does this Ebola crisis remind us that development aid is important?

Absolutely. I think what we need in Europe is leaders rather than politicians, statesmen who look at the next generations not at the next elections. Now health problems affecting one place in the world have global consequences, let’s think of recent health crisis such as SARSE, H1N1 and now Ebola. They started in China, Mexico, Sierra Leone and Guinea and now they are affecting everybody. Therefore, we need to make sure that proper leadership guides world communities towards supporting the countries in need for everybody’s interest.

In an interview released by the Huffington Post, Dr. Francis Collins, Head of the National Institutes of Health in the US, said that a decade of stagnant spending in health sector has “slowed down” research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe. If we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.” Do you think that budget cuts in European countries had a similar impact?

I agree, budget cuts have had a very negative impact on research and in the capacity of the health system to assist people, particularly in Europe. I think there is a lot to be rationalised, in some countries budget cuts had the healthy effect of reducing some waste of resources in determinate areas. However, these resources that have been recovered have not been used to support research, to support prevention or actions related to health. Some limited budget cuts might be useful, in Europe, to adjust a little bit the functioning of the health system, but excessive cuts can only be dangerous. I think what is important now is to recognize what is coming next, as for instance, a serious issue such as the anti-microbial resistance. A few people talk about it but in the next 10 years we won’t have effective ‘weapons’ such as antibiotics and antimicrobial agents to treat common diseases, because microbes are acquiring resistance.

So research is needed both for normal treatments and for new emergent diseases. Ebola has been known since 1996 and only became something of interest for research groups when somebody speculated about the possibility for it to become a biological weapon. That is when some studies started to look at vaccines and other aspects, before then, no one paid attention to it.

Let’s think of HIV AIDS, for instance, which developed around 1985. In 30 years it has become a chronic disease, it is now under control because there were major investments on immunology, basic science, drugs etc. Therefore, I think we need to avoid budget cuts on public research, because it is an insurance for future generations.

Fifty years from now, if we don’t act properly, there will not be antibiotics for common diseases, so people will have to worry again for pneumonia and minor things that are now commonly treated.

By Joshua Massarenti –

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