European NPHI Directors Ponder EU's Role in Global Public Health

The Belgian Scientific Institute of Public Health in November hosted the Fourth European NPHI directors meeting in Brussels, which focused on health policy topics of the Belgian EU presidency period. Managing public health risks in the context of evaluation of the influenza pandemic is a key part of the Belgium presidency program. In his overview of current European health policy issues, Dr. Johan Peeters, director of the institute, welcomed participants to join conversations about collaboration on the European national level and on the European Union’s role in global health.

Marc Sprenger, director of ECDC, said national public health laboratories are a vital operative data collecting tool for ECDC as well as for national needs. but national economic situations might put the continuity of lab-based data collection at risk. IANPHI should strongly advocate policy makers to maintain the existing strong level of preparedness to public health risks throughout Europe.

ECDC Senior Expert Alena Petrakova pointed out that aside from collaborating in data collection, it is crucial for NPHIs to share their experience in public health crises and means taken to overcome them. ECDC has collected lessons learned from the H1N1 pandemic last year to provide public health practitioners and policy makers a unified data source of the European experience.

A roundtable discussion facilitated by Dr. Sophie Quoilin, head of the Epidemiology Unit at Scientific Institute of Public Health, Belgium, elaborated on the challenges of communication in the context of crisis preparedness and precaution. While health risks cross borders, it is important to consider the national cultural context when communicating those risks since different nationalities have their own ways of warning the public, depending, for example,. on how much the public trusts the health authorities. Social media is emerging as a channel for addressing the public and must be considered in making communication plans. Director General Pekka Puska, THL, Finland, reminded the discussants that critical groups often actively use new media, which can influence public opinion. Post-crisis communication requires resources and cannot be omitted from the national and international preparedness strategies. 

Scientific reliability and consistency are NPHI strengths, and all measures must be taken to ensure maximum transparency in decision-making. H1N1 vaccination programs in European countries brought up the question of conflict of interest among decision makers, an issue which IANPHI members need to address collaboratively to find ways to secure transparent policy making without the declaring of connections becoming a burdensome bureaucratic process and misdirecting the focus from immediate responsiveness during public health crisis. 

Patient safety was discussed in the context of healthcare-associated infections (HAI) along with the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Hand hygiene is the most effective way to prevent HAI, said speakers from Belgian universities and ECDC, who gave an overview of measures taken to improve hand hygiene in hospitals and among health workers in Belgium. A twofold strategy to tackle the issue includes development of HAI indicators and a national hand-washing campaign targeting health care staff. ECDC has also been active in the campaign to increase awareness about antibiotic resistance to optimize the use of antibiotics. Dr Pieter Depuydt, Gent University Hospital, stressed the importance of further work on this field especially in intensive care units.

Data collection, monitoring, and surveillance of noncommunicable diseases also are elemental work of NPHIs. Dr Marike Vershuuren, Dutch National Institute for Public Helath and the Environment (RIVM), presented the activities undertaken by the Director General for Health and Human Affairs in Europe (DG SANCO) to harmonize different aspects of the European Health Information System in order to gain commensurable data on chronic disease throughout Europe. Defining appropriate health indicators and tools to collect information for public health planning and policy-making needs were discussed by Dr. Arpo Aromaa, THL Finland, and Dr Johan Van der Heyden, Scientific Institute of Public Health, Belgium. Besides agreeing on relevant indicators, international collaboration also meets the challenge of data collection methods and integration for the most cost effective and beneficial outcome in health policies. International cooperation through IANPHI provides national NPHIs a forum to reflect on the issues and to agree on best ways to effectively turn the scientific data into public health action and work towards joint goals in the field. 

Many of the themes discussed will require further elaboration in the future. As the next IANPHI Annual Meeting will take place in Helsinki, 25-28 September 2011, IANPHI Secretary General Teija Kulmala asked the European directors to share their ideas on topics for the agenda by getting in touch with the Helsinki Secretariat. In his concluding remarks Dr Pekka Puska reminded that IANPHI is actively taking measures to ensure the sustainability of international cooperation though the association. The knowledge and expertise of national public health institutes needs to be shared to strengthen public health globally. Dr. Moroslaw Wysocki, director of National Public Health Institute of Poland welcomed the European NPHI directors to continue the discussions in Poland in December 2011 during the Polish presidency.

Read the 2010 European Meeting report.  

EU Meeting

The knowledge and expertise of national public health institutes needs to be shared to strengthen public health globally. 

—Pekka Puska

Director General THL, Finland
Vice President, IANPHI