Concerns are growing among European Commission and health sector representatives that the economic crisis may impinge on public health provision, officials said Monday.
Urging EU nations to act now, EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou has sent a letter to her 26 colleagues in the bloc's executive arm, urging them to emphasise the need to act to address rising public health challenges thrown up by the recession which could, she fears, affect future generations.
"She said that it is our political responsibility to follow very carefully the evolution of the health and social situation in each of the 27 EU member states... and to assess with them how the European Union could best help and support them in fighting all aspects of the eventual negative consequences of the crisis on health," said Vassiliou's spokeswoman Nina Papadoulaki.
The commissioner's concerns were prompted by a World Trade Organization report in January which warned that "if government budgets come under pressure and household income drops, the demand on public services will increase."
Experience shows, the WTO warned, that in an economic downturn "patients either defer care completely or turn from the private to the public sector, if care is available at lower cost."
Unless public sector services receive adequate financial support in these circumstances the quality of care "is likely to deteriorate," according to the WTO.
One particular area of concern for Brussels is cancer screening.
The commission is "afraid that the member states will cut back on screening programmes and this can lead to fewer cases being detected early (meaning) more costly treatment, more suffering and more deaths," said Papadoulaki.
Both the commission and the health sector are worried that more people are becoming trapped in a spiral of poverty from which they won't emerge and hence future generations will be hit.
Monika Kosinska, secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance, says the effects are already being seen.
"We are seeing an increase in certain countries of the use of suicide helplines, reported increases in depression and the associated health problems that go with joblessness," said Kosinska, whose organisation representing NGOs, regional health authorities and health academics is part of the European Health Policy Forum which advises the European Commission.
"We are also seeing an impact on government spending on health," she added. "Some governments are threatening if not already cutting back on the availability of funding for certain drugs."
Individuals are also "thinking twice about paying for what would have been considered essential medicine just six months ago," she added.