‘Bending over backwards: Osteoporosis, the European policy and active ageing’ – article in the Parliament Magazine

Labour Party

Last week I was involved in and event called ‘Bending over backwards: Osteoporosis, the European policy and active ageing’, with my fellow MEP Jim Higgins from IrelandThe event was looking at what we can do in the EU to help tackle the massive problem of osteoporosis.  Not only does this chronic illness cause untold misery to millions, it also costs member states vast quantities of money every year.  The Parliament Magazine, the leading magazine on the European Parliament, was in attendance and have written a very good article about it.  I’ve copied the article below, but you can read it on the Parliament Magazine website by following the link here.  There were also some nice photos taken of the event which you can find here.

Earlier diagnosis, better treatment and a more coordinated approach to research and prevention are needed if Europe wants to avoid a future osteoporosis health crisis warn MEPs.

Speaking at a recent debate on osteoporosis and the EU’s policy on active ageing, British socialist MEP Mary Honeyball called for EU policymakers to “get the message out there; osteoporosis is a serious chronic disease”.

During the debate, early last week in the European parliament in Strasbourg and hosted by Irish EPP deputy Jim Higgins, Honeyball said, “Osteoporosis is often known as the ‘hidden’ or ‘silent’ disease; it’s still not very well known and the disease itself and its consequences are nowhere near the top of governments’ healthcare priorities.”

Despite lacking the ‘high profile’ that other major chronic illnesses such as cancer or Alzheimer’s have, Honeyball, who co-chairs the parliament’s osteoporosis interest group, wants to ensure that policymakers, particularly the European commission and national governments are aware, “not only of the human suffering that the disease brings, but also the economic consequences of osteoporosis, which are very severe”.

The annual health cost, for EU member states, of osteoporosis related disease is around €32bn a year, according to Higgins, who argued that, as the EU gears up for its 2012 European year of active ageing, “osteoporosis needs to become an EU priority”.

Osteoporosis burden

The Irish deputy, who campaigns across a range of bone diseases such as arthritis and rheumatism and is a staunch advocate of tackling vitamin D deficiency in the fight against osteo-related diseases, warned that the burden of osteoporosis was increasing.

The event, entitled ‘Bending over backwards: Osteoporosis and the EU policy on active ageing’, which was sponsored by health biotechnology company Amgen and pharmaceutical multinational GlaxoSmithKline, heard that in Europe alone, it is estimated that around 800,000 people will suffer an osteoporosis-related hip fracture each year.

“If you look at the figures, 24 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women die within a year of fracturing their hip, so it’s a major chronic problem that needs to be tackled,” said Higgins.

Secondary status

His views were echoed by Judy Stenmark, CEO of the International Osteoporosis Foundation, who warned that because of its perceived “secondary” status, “We are probably at the point that other diseases were 20 years ago, in terms of awareness.”

“We look on osteoporosis a bit like a new disease. It was only in 1994 that the WHO designated osteoporosis a disease even though it’s probably been around for centuries, said Stenmark who added, “people still think osteoporosis is just a disease of older women, but in fact, that’s not so”.

“Osteoporosis literally means porous bones. There are changes to the micro-architecture of the bone and they become weaker, they lose their strength, they become more fragile so that even just a minor trip or fall or even with no trauma at all, the bone will just break.

“What we need are bodies like the European parliament to start instituting policies that will really make a difference to those suffering from osteoporosis.

“We need better reimbursement policies for diagnostic tests and also for medications that have been rigorously evaluated so that people such as pensioners can afford appropriate treatments.

“We know how much osteoporosis costs; that’s going to double, as are fractures, over the next 50 years. But we know that preventing fractures is cost effective. So it’s time now to put in place policies that will have a direct impact on people’s health.

Active ageing

Jorge Pinto Antunes, a senior policy officer within the European commission’s health and consumer directorate, outlined some of the key priorities within the EU’s pilot European innovation partnership on active ageing.

“The idea behind the new partnership is to focus on addressing the challenges of the demographic transition that is currently underway in Europe and has a very ambitious target of increasing the number of healthy life years by two years by 2020,” said Pinto Antunes.

“The projections show that although growth in overall population will be very small, the increase in the number of older people, those above 65, and in particular, those above 80 will be quite big.

“So we will actually be facing a population where a third at least will be above 65, and although there is no reason to believe that people will be particularly suffering from bad health, if they do, then this can pose a number of problems.

“We need to tackle the burden of chronic diseases. People are living longer and unfortunately a number of these years are lived in poor health mainly because of chronic diseases.

“When you look at the statistics on musculoskeletal diseases that cover osteoporosis and Arthritis, which old people suffer more than most, it feels like this is one area where we should be doing something to address this burden.”

Cinderella service

However, during a short Q&A session, concerns were raised that the goals of the active ageing innovation partnership were too broad to have a significant impact on tackling osteoporosis.”

“We would like to see more on osteoporosis within the innovation partnership on active ageing,” said Honeyball.

“Maybe we can get that added. That’s what we mean when we sometimes talk about osteoporosis as a neglected area, as a ‘Cinderella service’; people don’t immediately think about osteoporosis. So there is a lot of ground to be made up, but we are starting to do that.

“The commission are talking about doing work on musculoskeletal diseases, and that is one of their categories, so we think that if we can link up with other groups we can really get more things moving and working together is obviously better than working alone.”

“What I want,”, Higgins told this website, “is to do the same as other interest groups here in the EU have done, and that is take osteoporosis forward from here, to ensure that this isn’t just a one-off event.”

“I think the important thing is that we establish on an ongoing basis a dialogue with MEPs, because we are the people on the ground, and secondly a dialogue with the commission, because what we need is funding.

“If there are going to be advances in research and improving knowledge about treatment, then what I think we need to do is engage the commission. Unfortunately we don’t have an ongoing relationship with them, so this event is the first part of that process.

Focus on chronic diseases

In a bid to develop more political clout with the commission, Higgins, Honeyball and Stenmark are developing a multi-disease grouping that will represent the so-called poor cousin chronic diseases, such as arthritis, diabetes, alongside organisations such as the European women’s health forum, to discuss common issues.

“Where we have common interests, we can pursue them together and that will obviously make us stronger, said Honeyball who will chair the event in the parliament on May 25.

Stenmark added, “Obviously there is strength in collaboration and partnerships with likeminded groups and I think that chronic diseases haven’t got their fair share of publicity and help from governments as opposed to infectious diseases. That’s been for good reason and we know that.

“But now is the time of osteoporosis, and arthritis and of course diabetes and respiratory diseases.”

Political engagement

And Higgins said he was determined to develop and widen the political engagement surrounding osteoporosis.

“We want to fire on as many cylinders as possible. There are a whole lot of options open to us. We have access to the commission in terms of question time where we certainly will be tabling questions on osteoporosis.

“Other options include written declarations, which can be a very powerful instrument, but they require a lot in terms of the signature requirements, but given the fact that this is not just a national issue, it goes right across the entire 27 EU member states, with sufferers in every country, this is something that should be of interest to all of us.

“We would be looking forward to actually drafting a written declaration, co-sponsoring it with as many people as possible from the different political groups in the parliament.

“And hopefully if we can engage as many people as possible to sign the initial sponsoring written declaration, then we can take it forward in terms of encouraging our colleagues to sign up.”