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On 23 January, HFE attended the Equity Action final conference on Addressing health inequalities 2014 and beyond: Building Cohesion and Strengthening Health for Growth”. The event showcased the tools and expertise developed by Equity Action during its three years of activity. The project assessed the progress on addressing health inequality in the EU and considered opportunities and challenges for future actions.

Equity Action is a joint action programme that was launched in 2011 which aimed to support EU Member States and Institutions to develop effective policies to reduce health inequalities. The project brought together 15 Member States and Norway, non – governmental bodies and the European Commission (EC). According to scientific evidence, social determinants play a crucial role in health.  For example, the lower a person’s social position, the worse his/her health is likely to be. The effect of this social gradient on health can be seen across social groups by age, gender and ethnicity.

Commissioner for Health Mr. Tonio Borg provided a general overview of Equity Action, underlining the decline of infant mortality and the reduction of the life expectancy gap across EU regions. However, he acknowledged that the gap in healthy life expectancy is wider and that people with lower income can expect to spend many years living with a limiting disability compared to people with higher incomes. Commissioner Borg suggested that in order to reduce health inequalities the EU needs to invest in cost-effective spending, structural reforms and sound innovation to bring efficiency gains and secure better health outcomes.

Highlighting the massive progress which has been achieved towards reducing inequality in the health sector, Mr. Michel Marmot, Director of the Institute of Health Equality at the University College London (UCL), said “this topic was a dirty secret until three years ago and today reducing health inequalities is on the agenda of the EC”. Despite this improvement, however, Mr Marmot noted that inequalities are increasing in several Member States due to the economic crisis. He asserted that this negative trend should push EU Member States and Institutions to adopt a clear, multi-sector, multi-level strategy to tackle health inequalities.

Several EU Health Ministries participated in the event including Ireland, Spain, UK, and Belgium. These countries shared their own national experiences tackling combatting inequalities which were characterised by two common elements: 1) a multi-stakeholder approach to reduce health inequalities; 2) having the economic support from the European Union.  On this last point, Mr. Ralph, Adviser to the Director General for Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO), suggested that the ongoing negotiations for EU Cohesion Policy and Structural and Investment Funds should define priorities and programmes that consider the issue of health inequalities.

Mr. Georgiadis Adonis, Greek Minister of Health, called for a European vision to improve people’s lives. He underlined, “Europeans life expectancy is increasing but the economic crisis is enhancing inequalities between people with low and high incomes”. Furthermore, he noted that poor people have a higher possibility to be affected by chronic diseases, mental disorders and cancer and declared that Europe needs to invest in health and growth.  Mr. Adonis also reiterated that the reduction of social inequalities has been listed among the Greek Presidency’s health priorities.

Mr. John Ryan, Acting Director for Public Health at DG SANCO, concluded by calling for the creation of an alliance among practitioners, civil society and governments to reduce health inequalities. He underlined the European Commission’s objective of enhancing collaboration with Member States on actions to reduce health inequalities across all 28 Member States in the follow on actions from the Equity Action project.