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EU: Health Ministers Pursues 'Wait And See' Policy On SARS

European Union health ministers, accompanied for the first time by their colleagues from the 10 accession countries, gathered for an emergency meeting on the SARS virus in Brussels yesterday. Although ministers expressed deep concerns about the spread of the disease and appealed for greater efforts to contain it, they failed to agree on concrete measures to step up the screening of travelers and shied away from setting up an EU-wide health control body.

Brussels, 7 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union yesterday gave every appearance of treating the continuing outbreaks of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) with the utmost seriousness.

Kostas Stefanis, the Greek health minister whose country runs the current EU presidency, said yesterday that all of his EU colleagues agree that SARS presents a real and serious threat. He said new and heightened measures by the bloc are necessary to contain the spread of the disease.

Yet the 15 EU ministers yesterday put off decisions that went beyond simply increasing the effectiveness of whatever national measures are already in place. Most notably, there appeared to be considerable resistance to the creation of an EU-wide epidemiology center. Nor did the ministers manage to agree on a coherent screening policy for non-EU travelers entering the bloc.

The bloc's health commissioner, David Byrne, indicated last night that the meeting produced little support for stepping up the screening of air passengers entering the EU.

"There was mention made of screening, exit screening, entry screening, and screening passengers on board of airlines and ships," Byrne said. "Most of the ministers who spoke on the subject believed and stated that there ought to be stress laid on exit screening [of passengers leaving infected areas]. They believe that to be the most effective, and also emphasized the fact that we don't want to emphasize entry screening because that is not as effective and may give a false sense of security."

The commissioner said a long incubation period meant travelers carrying SARS might not have developed any symptoms by the time they enter the bloc. Therefore, rather than subject incoming travelers to medical checks at the border, "administrative" screening by means of the compulsory filling out of forms is sufficient to allow non-EU travelers to be "traceable" within the bloc.

Byrne put particular emphasis on the effectiveness of the measures already in place across the EU in containing the virus. He noted there have been no SARS-related deaths in the EU, and there has been only one case of local transmission.

However, most EU ministers also seem to fear drastic screening measures could hurt tourism and the economy at large, as witnessed in China and other infected areas. Greek representative Stefanis said as much yesterday when he called for EU measures to be "proportionate" to the danger, lest they trigger fears that could have a "negative effect on [the bloc's] social and economic life."

The EU's health ministers yesterday also put a brake on efforts to use the current threat to move parts of the health sector outside the control of national governments and establish new EU-wide competencies in the field.

Most significantly, the ministers limited themselves to merely "taking note" of the European Commission's ongoing work to create a common center for the prevention and control of infectious diseases, similar to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. The proposal will be next discussed on 2 June.

Stefanis yesterday said that although everybody agrees on the need for greater cooperation in the field, there is strong resistance among ministers to investing more powers in the EU's central bodies: "However, there were some -- I can't really recall who the countries were, I think one was Germany -- who might consider the possibility of strengthening the network rather than the center, [avoiding] going into the establishment of an [EU] center but [favoring] strengthening the existing network." Stefanis went on to add that Belgium had also rejected the proposal.

France, on the other hand, pushed strongly for greater integration of European disease-monitoring bodies. Agencies quote French Health Minister Jean-Francois Matter as saying the EU should proceed along the lines in place in the United States.