Migration and health on agenda at informal council of European Union health ministers

Ministry of Health, Greece

Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, and Spyridon-Adonis Georgiadis, chair of the informal meeting of ministers and Minister of Health of Greece

Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, joined health ministers and high-level officials from European Union (EU) countries to discuss migration and health, in addition to the economic crisis and health care, at an informal council held in Athens, Greece on 28–29 April, as part of the Greek EU Presidency.

Migration and health

Migration accounts for a large proportion of population growth within the EU and the WHO European Region. In 2008, the World Health Assembly adopted a resolution on migrant health, recognizing the need for migrant-sensitive health policies and systems, and equitable access to services. Ministers at the 2014 meeting in Greece recognized the multiple challenges that governments and health systems face in addressing this issue, including the differences often found between migrants’ health profile and that of the rest of the population, the need to ensure access to health services for this vulnerable group and the need for cross-sectoral and cross-border collaboration.

The Regional Director explained to ministers how the WHO Public Health Aspects of Migration in Europe (PHAME) project was initiated in 2011, with support from the Italian Ministry of Health, to assist Member States in the southern Mediterranean region to address public health needs. Since then, WHO has worked on health and migration with Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain, and conducted assessment missions in Italy, Malta and Portugal. WHO/Europe will hold a technical briefing on this topic during the 2014 Regional Committee session. In line with Health 2020, the European policy for health and well-being, WHO wants to continue to support Member States in developing evidence-based policies to ensure good health for migrants.

Ministers agreed to set up a working group under the EU Health Security Committee to explore developing voluntary guidelines for screening and vaccination. WHO will participate in the group, and its International Health Regulations (IHR) are an important tool.

Economic crisis and health care

Ministers attending the meeting acknowledged that the new economic situation in Europe requires health systems to adapt and become more resilient.

The Regional Director explained that WHO/Europe has gathered evidence on the effects of the economic crisis since it began, and developed policy recommendations. It has scaled up its technical support to countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Malta and Portugal. WHO/Europe was developing a tool for the systematic monitoring and early detection of the potential effects of economic crisis on health, its determinants and health systems. Indicators for the monitoring tool have been agreed, and it will be pilot-tested soon and rolled out later in 2014.

Evidence from previous crises showed that access to good-quality services can be protected if good coverage policies already exist. There are limits to the gains that can be made by increased efficiency, especially in times of crisis. It is important to have a strong social policy to promote financial security, a fiscal policy to secure adequate social spending, a health policy to protect access to services, and strong leadership to make the case for investment in health during crises.

WHO advocates universal health coverage to link sustainability, access to care and financial risk protection, and recommends that this be part of the post-2015 development agenda. Ensuring that people have equitable access to health care and that economic crises do not disproportionally affect vulnerable groups is a key element of Health 2020.