Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne said: "I am very pleased that we have all been able to move forward quickly to provide European citizens with better protection for any future epidemics. The lessons we learned during the outbreaks of SARS in 2003 and bird flu this year have been acted upon. Infectious diseases can pose a deadly threat - and they do not respect national borders. This new EU agency will enable Europe to be better prepared for future epidemics. The fact that this legislation was agreed in record time of just eight months shows that we in Europe can act quickly and effectively when called on. There is strength in unity."
Though the EU has a system for the Europe-wide epidemiological surveillance of infectious diseases (see: MEMO/03/155) cooperation on investigating and controlling disease is largely ad hoc. For example, the small EU team sent to help the WHO investigate avian influenza in Vietnam (see IP/04/165) is part of an EU project to train disease investigation experts. The EU expert group on SARS created during the outbreak in spring 2003 was put together under the European Communicable Disease Network. While these have been good short term solutions, they are not sustainable in the long term.
The ECDC will enable Europe to pool its disease control expertise more effectively, allowing EU disease outbreak investigation teams to be put together quickly and efficiently. The Centre will ensure the results of their investigations are available to the public health authorities around the EU. And it will produce authoritative advice and recommendations to guide EU and national decision makers.
A small but effective EU agency
There is already a wealth of scientific expertise in the Member States' public health institutes. The aim of the proposed ECDC is to network this expertise and to facilitate coordination between the Member State institutes. The Centre itself will have a relatively small core staff (probably around 30 to 40 to start off with).
However, it will tap into, and draw together the expertise of hundreds of scientists around Europe. The core of this network is already in place. Europe's communicable disease network already links experts monitoring specific diseases or following specific issues such as antimicrobial resistance (see MEMO/03/155).
As the Centre takes over the operation of these networks, it will make use of the expertise and working relationships they have already established. The ECDC will also assist the work on monitoring and preparedness planning against bioterrorist attacks that has been pursued by the EU's Health Security Task Force (see MEMO/02/122).
The initial focus of the Centre will be on communicable diseases and outbreaks of disease of unknown origin. After it has been operating for three years the work of the Centre will be reviewed by an external evaluator. Following this review, and also future reviews of the Centre's work, the EU may decided to extend the ECDC's remit to cover other activities in the field of public health, such as health monitoring.
ECDC operational in 2005
Preparatory work on the creation of the Centre will start later this year. A Management Board, composed of Member State, Commission and European Parliament representatives, will need to be established and the search for a Director of the agency begun. The Centre is on course to become operational in 2005.
The European Council in Brussels in December decided that the ECDC will be based in Sweden and the Swedish government has chosen Stockholm for its location.
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