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Peter O'Donnell is a freelance journalist who specializes in European health affairs and is based in Brussels, Belgium.
Peter O'Donnell discusses the outpouring of support for Stella Kyriakides, who has been designated to lead European Union health policy for the next five years, and how she might need every bit of it.
An obscure clinical psychologist from a remote and divided island in the Mediterranean has been designated to lead European Union health policy for the next five years-and just as surprisingly, the news has provoked a wave of enthusiasm across the European health sector.
On 10 September, the incoming president of the European Commission announced its 26 future members, and what roles they would have when it takes over at the end of next month. Stella Kyriakides, who worked for a quarter of a century in the Cyprus health ministry’s department of child and adolescent psychiatry until she was elected to the country’s parliament in 2006, has been entrusted with heavy responsibilities: she is, “to support the health sector and the professionals working within it, to invest in new technologies, to promote healthy lifestyles and to cooperate better within the EU”, according to the letter of appointment accompanying her nomination. Her tasks will include ensuring Europe has an adequate supply of affordable medicines, helping the European pharmaceutical industry remain a world leader, exploiting e-health to reduce inequalities and to support research, to seek “a global agreement on the use of and access to antimicrobials,” and to tackle vaccine hesitancy and skepticism. She will also have to take the lead on a new European plan for beating cancer.
So why the enthusiastic welcome? Surely it cannot be down just to her sidelines in the past such as president of a breast cancer charity or in a series of roles in the-also obscure-Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (which is quite a different animal from the European Union).
Yet, welcome there has been. Often in fulsome language. From patient groups and health campaigners, who, “look forward to hearing more about her plans on ambitious solutions to European and global health challenges” from the main research-based drug industry association, EFPIA, or the generic companies, smaller drug firms, the devices firms, and even from the current European health commissioner-or from nearly everyone else with skin in the European healthcare game.
Irrespective of Kyriakides’ personal merits and aptitudes, and even irrespective of the small size and influence of her country, many of Europe’s health-related organizations are mightily relieved that someone-anyone, at risk of being impertinent-has been designated as commissioner for the health portfolio. Because they have been living for the last two years with the anxiety that the new Commission would diminish and even abolish health policy, in a bid to slim down the EU machine and focus on its core economic and political and market-focused interests. The concern was that without some figurehead (and attendant officials) for health, the subject-which barely features in the treaties underlying the EU’s mandate-would become utterly subsidiary to other more muscular policy areas. The genuinely pressing issues in Europe of health research, medicines legislation, clinical trials regulation, health technology assessment, drug pricing, intellectual property protection or trade were at risk of being swept aside, ignored or submerged, it was feared.
Whether Kyriakides will have the clout to defend the multiple interests of Europe’s health and healthcare organizations will depend on many factors. First, will her designation be approved by the European Parliament? Second, what sort of support staff will she be allocated? Third, how well will she manage to find effective working methods with more experienced fellow-commissioners with big-ticket portfolios and coming from bigger countries?
One thing she can count on. She will get support from the top. She was chosen by the incoming president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen-who is herself a doctor, and with a particular interest in seeing Europe develop a cancer plan. She may need all the support she can get.