Prevention and screening key to addressing cancer in the EU
Following the publication of the new European Cancer Manifesto, EU lawmakers and stakeholders have driven home the the importance of improving prevention and screening policies across Europe.
Addressing cancer has been one of the top political priorities during the past years, with initiatives like the BECA report from the European Parliament and the European Commission’s EU’s Beating Cancer Plan putting it high on the agenda.
“Sometimes when I speak, I realise that what I’m saying may sound overenthusiastic, overambitious, over-optimistic, but we need to set the bar high when we’re trying to change the realities of cancer,” said Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides during the EU Cancer Summit (15-16 November).
One of the main focuses of the conversation now is put in prevention and screening, as the EU Beating Cancer Plan reads: “Prevention is more effective than any cure.”
The European Cancer Organisation (ECO) also highlighted this in their recently published “Time to Accelerate: Together Against Cancer” manifesto which sets recommendations for the future of European cancer policy under the next European Commission mandate of 2024-2029.
According to the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, in 2020, 2.7 million people in the EU were diagnosed with cancer, with 1.3 million dying from it. More than 40% of cancer cases in Europe are preventable and mortality can also be reduced through earlier diagnosis and the provision of more timely and effective treatments.
WHO lobbies EU lawmakers against watering down alcohol cancer risk
Ahead of a crucial European Parliament vote, the World Health Organisation (WHO) sent a letter to MEPs – obtained exclusively by Euractiv – expressing increasing concern about the state of play of the EU’s flagship Beating Cancer plan due to “scientifically inaccurate and worrisome” wording on alcohol use.
Focus on prevention
Currently, EU efforts are concentrated on regulating cancer risk factors. “Primary risk factors are well known, yet most still lack appropriate policy response,” reads the European Cancer Organisation manifesto.
Hoping to change this, the European Parliament is preparing a report on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) focusing on addressing the main risk factors associated with cancer: tobacco and alcohol consumption, unhealthy diets, environmental effects and lack of physical activity.
The inclusion of alcohol is the most sensitive topic in the discussions among EU lawmakers. While they all agree that it should be part of the report, the debate comes over the language that should be used, debating if a certain threshold of alcohol consumption should be designated as “harmful”.
“I think it’s because the momentum for the elections is increasing the temperature in the parliament and prevention has become a battleground between political groups,” stated Sara Cerdas, Portuguese socialist MEP.
During the summit, ECO highlighted that according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “there is no safe amount of alcohol intake”.
According to WHO, half of the alcohol-related cancers in the EU region are caused by light and moderate alcohol consumption, less than 1.5 litres of wine or less than 3.5 litres of beer a week.
“Listen to science. Let science guide politics, particularly in the field of health,” stressed Italian socialist MEP Alessandra Moretti.
She mentioned how the ban on smoking in public spaces came years after health professionals warned of its dangers. “We could have saved so many lives, if only we as politicians had acted sooner and by listening to the scientific community,” she added.
Regarding alcohol consumption, the ECO backs the EU Beating Cancer Plan’s position on putting forward legal proposals for mandatory labelling of the ingredients and nutritional information as well as health warnings on alcoholic beverage products.
However, ECO warns about the strong industry lobbying against these measures, something Cerdas also mentioned during the summit.
“It’s of particular concern the interference of the industry in disseminating health misinformation that goes against the best available evidence and that is now reflected in the report by the Subcommittee on Public Health (on NCDs),” she said.
EU ministers adopt new cancer screening recommendations
The EU-27 health ministers finally adopted new recommendations on cancer screening on Friday (9 December), marking an important last-minute achievement for the Czech government before the end of their EU presidency.
Screening in Europe
Another leg of the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan is implementing screening policies in Europe ensuring equality between member states.
“We are seeing for the first time new screening recommendations being rolled out across the EU, with ambitious targets for screening to improve early detection”, Commissioner Kyriakides said.
The Commission’s Beating Cancer Plan announced support for member states to ensure that 90 % of the EU population who qualify for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screenings are offered screening by 2025.
Kyriakides also celebrated the update of the current screening guidelines by the European Council after 19 years, however, she recognised that now “we have them, but there is still a great deal more to do”.
The previous recommendations, from 2003, were limited only to breast, cervical and colorectal cancer while the current one broadens the focus to also include lung, prostate and gastric cancer.
According to data from the European Commission, in 2021 the number of women who had received a mammography for breast cancer screening varied from 83% in Denmark and 82% in Finland to 20.6% in Bulgaria and 24.6% in Cyprus.
The same differences can be seen for cervical cancer screening, where it varied from 78.5% in Sweden to 3.9% in Romania.
Despite EU efforts to implement a broader screening strategy and tackle inequalities, the situation in Europe still has room to improve.
Kyriakides also announced that “because accountability is important”, the Commission will put forward a study in 2024 to assess the real impact of the Beating Cancer Plan.
“It’s not enough to just assume that it’s rolling forward and being implemented”, she added.