A trip to Dubai proved fatal for a Frenchman, who became infected with the novel coronavirus. On 28 May the 65-year-old became the 23rd person to die of this new respiratory illness similar to the Sars virus, responsible for killing hundreds of people. Luckily, it does not seem that this new virus is very contagious and experts say the risk of catching it remains very low, but it does demonstrate once again the risk viruses and diseases pose to our increasingly interlinked world.
The past has shown us how devastating epidemics can prove to be. The Black Death has been credited with killing between 75 million and 200 million in the 14th Century, which amounted to 30-60% of Europe's population at the time. Similarly, the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918 proved more deadly than the First World War, killing an estimated 50-100 million people.
Medical science has progressed a lot since then, but diseases and viruses remain a threat. Experts believe more infectious diseases will be passed on by animals to people due to urbanisation, global warming and the destruction of natural habitats. Also the widespread use of planes, trains and cars have made it much easier for diseases and viruses to spread quickly.
The European Commission has produced a proposal to make it easier for the EU to quickly tackle serious health threats. Under the plans each member state would be required to draw up, consolidate and update its national preparation and response plan for dealing with health crises in a coordinated manner. It would also allow the speed up of the provision of medication needed to combat a health crisis.
The proposal is not only about dealing with new diseases, but also incidents such as the Icelandic volcano that spewed ash clouds detrimental to international flights.
The proposal details what resources, networks and structures are needed and recommends extending the scope of risk assessment and coordination measures, which are currently only applied to communicable diseases, to all health threats of biological, chemical or environmental origin.
The Commission plans still have to be approved by the European Parliament and the Council before they can enter into force. French MEP Gilles Pargneaux, a member of the Socialist Democrat group, has been tasked with drawing up recommendations. He has suggested changes to ensure the independence of experts who play a vital part in dealing with health threats. He also believes threats arising from ionising radiation should be included, as the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in March 2011 shows the importance of reacting quickly to such a catastrophe. In addition the scope of the proposal should be extended to threats arising from misuse of medication or the sale of defective medical devices.
Mr Pargneaux's report will be voted on during the June plenary.