Avian flu, chikungunya, tuberculosis: faced with the threat of diseases from around the world, a team of experts at a new EU crisis cell in Sweden monitors health risks in Europe, ready to jump into action at a moment's notice.
On the wall, giant screens display international news channels covering the latest world developments. Five clocks show the time in Atlanta, London, Stockholm, Moscow and Tokyo, and posters recall the emergency procedures to be followed in the event of a health alert.
AdvertisementFive European specialists who work full-time in the Emergency Operations Centre -- from Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium and Italy -- scour specialised Internet sites, articles and press releases from around the world, using keyword searches for various diseases.
During a recent visit to the crisis centre, an electronic sign read: alert level zero. No serious health risks, no emergency plan to set into action.
The crisis unit, which has yet to be officially inaugurated, is part of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), a European Union agency based in Stockholm.
The ECDC, operational since 2005 and whose 150 employees hail from almost all of the EU member states, is aimed at bolstering Europe's protection against infectious diseases.
"ECDC's main mandate is to identify the threats, to assess and evaluate these threats, to come up with scientific advice for policy makers and ... to promote the preparedness of the European Union countries towards epidemics," the agency's Hungarian director, Zsuzsanna Jakab, told AFP.
If a health risk is detected, the ECDC immediately contacts the country or countries concerned, which can take over the matter.
The crisis unit demonstrated its usefulness earlier this year when a worldwide health alert was issued over a US traveller suffering from tuberculosis.
US health officials had determined, albeit erroneously, that the man who had travelled from Greece to Italy was infected with a potentially lethal strain of the disease resistant to antibiotics.
The man then flew to Montreal via Prague before authorities finally caught up with him on his return to the United States.
"Given the very serious form (of the disease), all of the passengers who may have been in contact with him needed to be taken care of," explained Denis Coulombier, head of the ECDC's Preparedness and Response Unit.
Within 24 hours, the Emergency Operations Centre had identified all of the passengers who may have been exposed to the disease and who needed to consult a doctor immediately.
Coulombier stressed the importance of strong European collaboration and a joint approach to health sector challenges, but said that getting 30 countries (the 27 EU members plus Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) to work together was at times laborious.
"The difficulty is to have a really coherent approach for all of the countries, which have differing health systems, different centralisation levels, different interlocutors," he said.
A recent ECDC epidemiological report highlighted the main health concerns facing Europe. They included health-care associated infections (contracted in hospitals) and microbes resistant to antibiotics, Jakab said.
"It is very clear from the report that there are three million hospital-acquired infections in a year in the EU, which practically means that every 10th patient who is hospitalised gets an infection like this. Out of those, 50,000 die," she said.
One of the problems is the overuse of antibiotics.
"In some countries, it is still possible to buy antibiotics over the counter," she said.
"It will be one of our main areas of work to work with these countries ... to make sure that this stops, because there is a clear relationship between the antibiotic consumption and the level of resistance developing," Jakab said.