Incoming EU health chief rallies for ‘all hands on deck’ to beat cancer

02 Oct 2019 | News

Stella Kyriakides, a cancer survivor and long-time campaigner, pledges wide strategy of new research and prevention to fight the disease

Stella Kyriakides in the European Parliament. Photo: EC / Audiovisual

The incoming lead on a new EU plan for beating cancer has called for “all hands on deck” to fight the disease that nearly half of all Europeans will face.

“Making a difference in the life of cancer sufferers has always been my guiding principle,” Stella Kyriakides, health commissioner to be, told her confirmation hearing in the European Parliament.

A clinical psychologist by training, Kyriakides is a long-standing campaigner on breast cancer, as well as a survivor of the disease.

“I’ve gone through cancer. It’s close to my heart,” she told MEPs during a three-hour question-and-answer session.

An EU cancer plan requires wide investment in new research, as well as information campaigns on prevention. “We’re not investing enough in changing lifestyles,” she said. “Forty per cent of us will face cancer. Everything from food we eat, to new medicines, are highly relevant to beating this thing.”

Among the Cypriot’s main tasks, as laid out in her letter of appointment, are ensuring Europe has an adequate supply of affordable medicines, applying e-health to reduce social inequalities in health, helping the European pharmaceutical industry remain a world leader, seeking global agreement on the use of and access to antimicrobial drugs and tackling refusal to vaccinate children.

MEPs tested the health nominee on a range of public health and food safety issues, covering fertiliser use, vaccine scepticism, protection of Europe’s bees and antimicrobial resistance.

In a convincing, well-briefed performance, delivered in clear, precise English, Kyriakides called on the EU “to strive for more” across a range of health-related policy areas.

“I can commit to decreasing our dependence on fertilisers and [to] finding low risk alternatives,” she said. “In no way do I underestimate the effect that pesticides have on health, and it would be unheard of to be health commissioner and not to take this on.”

Kyriakides called antimicrobial resistance “a devastating problem” that is claiming over 30,000 lives in Europe and promised the EU would lead on the crisis.

She also emphasised the importance of the European green deal, a signature policy of the incoming commission, to help deliver affordable nutritious food, climate neutrality and tackle climate pollution.

Kyriakides will work very closely with member states on vaccines and “where we see that there is misinformation, immediately dealing with it.” However, she did not expand on the ‘how’ of this pledge.

She also promised that there would be “no lowering the bar” on protection of nature’s pollinators, the bees.

A green light for Kyriakides’ candidacy appears a formality, with enough MEPs won over by her address.

“She was thoroughly convincing and demonstrated her expertise, concern for patients and empathy,” said Peter Liese, member of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee.

If confirmed, Kyriakides would take the reins of the health job from Lithuania’s Vytenis Andriukaitis on 1 November.

That there is a new commissioner for health at all is already a significant boon for patient advocates.

There had been anxiety in Brussels that the incoming commission would diminish or even abolish health policy, which is an area over which the EU has very limited jurisdiction.

This worry was laid to rest when Ursula von der Leyen, the new commission president and a medical doctor, handed the health post to Cyprus.

Kyriakides currently serves in the House of Representatives in Cyprus. A member of the Democratic Rally Party, which forms part of the centre-right European People's Party in the European Parliament, she has also served as president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Before becoming a politician, Kyriakides worked as clinical psychologist in the Ministry of Health for over 25 years.

After her nomination to Brussels, Kyriakides wrote to parliament to say she was divesting her shares in Starbucks, the coffee chain.

She also resigned from the breast cancer patients group Europa Donna Cyprus and the Miracle Babies association, which helps infants born prematurely.

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