Health minister highlights public health risk of illegal migration at EU council

Addressing the EU health ministers' council in Luxembourg on Monday, Greek Health Minister Andreas Loverdos stressed that the huge influx of mainly African and Asian migrants into Greece in 2010 posed heightened risks to public health, as well as putting massive strain on the country's overburdened state health services. The council meeting focused on the impact of migration on public health.
Loverdos said that illegal migration was currently one of the most important problems faced by Greece, with more than 132,000 illegal migrants entering the country in 2010 and a further 9,000 in the first third of 2011.
The minister noted that the majority of these migrants originated from countries in Africa and Asia with an entirely different epidemiological profile to those of Greeks and other Europeans, bringing with them new but also some forgotten diseases, such as polio, cholera or malaria. Due to their poor living conditions, meanwhile, they served to increase the incidence of diseases such as tuberculosis or hepatitis.

Loverdos underlined that the impact on public health exceeded the means and ability of the Greek health services to cope, while the total cost was prohibitive and came to nearly 140 million euro in 2010. He noted that the assistance received by Greece in this area was more "symbolic" than substantial, with just 10 million euro approved for the first half of 2011.

Loverdos pointed out that the repercussions were hard to assess and did not concern Greece alone, since epidemics did not recognise borders and any deterioration of conditions in Greece would inevitably affect the rest of Europe.

Urging a common European solution to the issue, he said that this should be comprehensive and permanent, underlining that Greece and other countries of the European south had need of European solidarity in the form of laws or financial instruments, either new or modified to deal with the new challenge.

"What we need is a public health 'Frontex' capable of protecting the European population," he said.

During a general discussion on health systems, Loverdos said that the spread of non-communicable diseases and restricted funds were among the biggest challenges. He called for a shift in funding toward integrated approaches that emphasised prevention, early diagnosis, treatment and management of complications.

He further underlined that Greece's top priority at present was to reorganise the system and drastically cut back spending on health while maximising cost-efficiency through appropriate, timely and good quality services for all.

Also a priority for the health ministry was to promote healthier life styles, with a reduction in smoking rates, more exercise and healthier diet. Toward this end, Loverdos supported the introduction of an international solidarity tax for tobacco in order to raise funds for tackling NCDs and the reduction of smoking.

The Greek minister stressed the need to enhance cooperation between member-states to find sectors where working together might yield a better result for the same or lower cost.

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