“Tuberculosis is our shame; Elimination of viral hepatitis C is very possible and HIV/AIDS is more complicated.”
I have met Dr Andrew Amato at the main conference venue of the European Health Forum Gastein, which he attended for the first time. During an hour-long interview, we had an interesting and fairly open discussion on where European Union is now in reaching SDG 3.3, as well as what are the key reasons for that. I hope you would enjoy reading this article as much as I enjoyed talking to this passionate health care professional while drinking a coffee on a sunny terrace of a small café surrounded by the Alps.
AT: The motto of this year EHFG opening plenary was “Let’s think big for Public Health in Europe”. What does it mean for you to think big?
AA: For me, it means that we should be more ambitious in our aims and our goals. Even if we know that we are being too ambitious, this is important as the political commitment to public health today is rather weak, so politicians do need aspirational goals. I don’t see a lot of public health champions among the politicians today. There is also a tendency towards adopting more populist policies. Unfortunately, this usually means the politicians will tend to only focus on policies and make promises that will provide short-term satisfaction. So, we, the public health activists, need to look at the big picture and set ourselves bigger goals that could inspire the politicians to follow suit and plan greater policies, rather than going for immediate and short-term outcomes.
For example, hepatitis C elimination in Europe is ‘easily’ achievable from a policy aspect – the only thing that needs to be done is testing of the at-risk populations and providing curative treatment, as simple as that. Of course, it would cost a lot of money initially, but the benefit such a plan is that it will have to be done only once on large scale.Obviously, I am oversimplifying to make a point, but it really can be done with the help of motivated and strong-willed politicians behind it.
Vaccination is a similar topic: we could do so much better with just a little bit more emphasis on the right legislation, a bit stricter enforcement and stronger advocacy strategies. By now, we were supposed to have eliminated measles in the EU: we have the tools, we have the money, and yet, for the lack of interest and political will, the campaigns have mostly faltered. I am convinced that a major campaign – and by “major”, I mean a suitably funded campaign with inspired leadership, which is run over 3 to 5 years,focusing only on measles –, would easily manage to eliminate measles in the EU. The USA had managed to come very close to achieving this, and then faltered for various reasons, which unfortunately include recurrent imported infections from the EU. That’s the kind of high-level policies we need, with countries coming together and agreeing that we need to work on this particular priority and putting sufficient resources there. The problem with this is that the health mandate of the EU Commission is still rather limited. Namely, there have been brave attempts in starting up major partnerships (e.g. against tobacco or cancer) and becoming more involved in public health, but it is still a work in progress. The organization of health services is still the mandate of Member States, so we have different health care services across the EU. For me, this is in a way against the spirit of the EU, which is all about crossing borders without any obstacles or differences. So, as long as health care services,disease prevention and health promotion services are different in every country, a citizen moving from one country to another will face differing services. We still have a long way to go for the EU to fix that. From the public health perspective, the DG SANTE is probably not the most influential sector of the Commission – it is nowhere near the Economics, the Finance, or the Foreign Affairs sectors, just to name a few. I think we should all work on raising the profile of health to a satisfying level.
AT: Turning to one of the SDGs, precisely to SDG 3.3 – what are the key priorities for Europe?
AA: Yes, the famous SDG 3.3…. It is unlikely that we will be able to achieve TB elimination in the EU within the target. This is a disease which is almost 100% curable with antibiotics, and yet, despite all the medical advances that we have made, we can’t seem to “fix” it in the EU. I don’t understand how we have found ourselves in this situation. It’s true that the numbers are decreasing, but the decline is very slow. We need to focus on the latent TB, especially because we have never given it the attention it deserves. MD RTB shouldn’t remain the problem it is now, there are new tools coming online quite soon which hopefully should make it less of an issue.
The SDG 3.3. refers to combating hepatitis.What does that mean? The UN has come up with numbers, planning a reduction of 90%, but I think that total elimination of HCV is what we should aim for at the EU. As I said before, we already have all the necessary tools in the EU, and we have good health care services, so why can’t we achieve that?
For HIV/AIDS, the SDG target is more complicated. We have at last begun to see a true reduction of incidence in the EU/EEA, first seen in the surveillance data of the last year, mainly in new cases of infection among men who have sex with men. This is largely thanks to the adoption of Test and Treat policies and the roll out of PrEP for at-risk populations. I think people began to realize that the more we adopt these ‘fast-track’ policies, the more we will see HIV coming down rapidly. Also, AIDS rates are dropping very fast because the treatment is working so well. On the other hand, we see epidemics of gonorrhea and syphilis in the EU. With further roll out of PrEP, we can expect to see more of these. Still, it will be hard to know whether this is due to more new infections actually happening, or because at-risk people are tested more often and thus are found to be infected. However, I think if PrEP is implemented properly, the highest-risk groups will likely attend services more often, both for their prescriptions and screening tests. This way, they will be tested and treated for syphilis and gonorrhea as well, possibly bringing these down in the longer term. So, there is a possibility of using PrEP to reach out to the most at-risk group and reduce their overall infection risks and exposure. The current rates of increase of STIs are concerning, and we are expecting to find out more about the rising rates of congenital syphilis in the USA. We haven’t seen it yet, but we can expect that this is going to happen in one- or two-year time.
Of course, malaria is not that relevant in the EU for now, but if the rates of other vector-borne diseases are anything to go by, it is just a question of time.
So, I believe HCV is where we could achieve the most. For TB we are not doing as well as we should, especially in the east of Europe. And as a side effect of PrEP we might be also combating STIs.
AT: I also wanted to talk about SDG 3.3. and migration. You have published several papers related to the issues of migration. Every now and then, something happens in the world and we have a new wave of migrants arriving to the EU, bringing new culture, traditions, languages, as well as new health-related problems. What do you think of that?
AA: Our work with migrants is limited, because ECDC’s focus lies within infectious diseases, which might not be the major public health problem for migrants. TB and, to a lesser extent, hepatitis may pose some problems, especially among irregular migrants coming from high-prevalence areas, but for HIV/AIDS this is much less of an issue. The problems for migrants go beyond infectious disease, and we don’t have a mandate there.
A specific problem with migrants that I have is the word itself. We use “migrant” for a very broad phenomenon, and mostly synonymous with migration from outside of EU: there are people who are economic migrants, for example the North Africans, who are trying to get across in order to get work; there are war refugees like Syrians, and there are whole mix of central Asians, who are looking for a better life. Still, we tend to put all of them in one basket of “migrants”. They all have very different problems, very different issues, very different health needs. It’s such a complex issue, and our work has been very limited. Some policy advisers asked ECDC to define whether we should be testing “migrants” for certain diseases, for example. In response, we developed guidelines that specify what should be asked if a test is offered, and of course, stating that those tests should be provided only on voluntary basis. Also, if a test is provided, the treatment has to be made available, otherwise it is simply not ethical to test. TB in migrants is something that we focus more on, as many migrants come from high-prevalence areas, but hepatitis and HIV/AIDS are among the least health problems migrants face. HIV/AIDS, as we have found out, becomes a problem for the migrants after moving to the EU. There is good data showing they get infected more often after they had moved to the EU. It is quite the opposite to what right-wing politicians like to preach – that the migrants bring HIV/AIDS to the EU. Finally, as already mentioned, we use the term mostly synonymous with migration from outside of the EU, but we should also consider the impact of migrations within the EU, from Eastern European to Western European countries.
AT: To sum up, this is your first time at EHFG – what does it feel like?
AA: Yes, it is. So far, I have only seen the village (laughing) and the village is very cute and I love the mountains! So, I am very happy to be here. I am here with my director, we will have ECDC session tomorrow, and I am looking forward to our session, we will see how it goes.
This interview was conducted by a Young Gasteiner Anna Tokar