The European Union (EU) has been urged to act swiftly to deal with the "dreadful" situation faced by millions of people in terms of access to medicines, so that "a public health disaster” can be avoided.

The Declaration on Access to Medicines was launched in Brussels by a coalition of civil society organisations on July 10, as the European Commission was set to propose its Innovation Investment Package, which will include the Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 (IMI2). Expected to start in January 2014, IMI2 is a Joint Technology Initiative (JTI) bringing together companies, universities, public laboratories, innovative small and medium-sized companies (SMEs), patient groups and regulators to pave the way for breakthrough vaccines, medicines and treatments to tackle the EU's growing health challenges. 

IMI2 will aim to speed up the roll-out of effective and sustainable healthcare, leverage public and private research funding to lower investment barriers and help secure the future international competitiveness of Europe's pharmaceutical industry.

The Declaration's signatories warn that life-saving medicines are becoming a luxury across Europe, particularly in the regions hit hardest by the economic crisis, and they call on the Lithuanian Presidency to make "decisive progress" on the problem over the next six months.

"With soaring numbers of people restricted from receiving the inexpensive and effective drugs they need, the problem is reaching appalling proportions,” they warn, adding: “turning a blind eye to such a public health tragedy is no longer an option."

Moreover, applying austerity policies to biomedical products, such as introducing co-payments or restricting coverage, will do nothing to address the underlying flaws of EU member states' healthcare systems, the signatories state. "In fact, poor access to medicines inhibits patients from solving their health problems, resulting in overall greater cost to the public healthcare budgets."

The Declaration say access to medicines is "an undeniable right slipping away," and calls on the EU to take a number of steps, including:

- evaluating the impact of fiscal consolidation measures on health and access to medicines, prevention and diagnostics. Currently, the Commission conducts no such research, but it should carry out a health impact assessment of such measures taken over the last two years, and conduct independent evaluations before any new fiscal consolidation measures are requested from member states;

- working with the European Parliament and the Council to revise the Transparency Directive, to ensure it mandates the creation of an online database on prices (procurement, reimbursement, patient, etc) across member states, which is publicly accessible and updated annually. Steps are also needed to assure the transparency and public accessibility of all clinical trial results and member state medicine evaluation committees, and for pharmaceutical companies to be transparent on the cost structure of pharmaceutical R&D and justification for market prices;

- considering coordination among member states for joint procurement of medicines, facilitating dialogue on cost-containment tools to ensure access to medicines and promoting policies and best practices aimed at addressing rational use of medicines and adherence; and

- establishing a new legal framework, as the current innovation model is failing to satisfy unmet health needs and the equity of access to medicines across the EU.

The coalition say their concerns echo those of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who earlier this month adopted a legislative text on serious cross-border health threats and a resolution on access to care for vulnerable groups. 

The first text introduces a scheme to enable EU member states to buy medicines jointly at a "fairer" price, while the second calls on the states to ensure that austerity measures do not undermine EU values and prevent the most vulnerable people from being able to access healthcare.

- The joint declaration was coordinated by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) and co-signed by Active Citizenship Network, Collectiv Interassociatif Sur la Sante (CISS), Doctors of the World, European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG), Health Action International - Europe (HAI Europe), Salud pro Derecho - Right to Health Foundation and Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD).

The statement follows on from the conference: Can EU Citizens Afford Their Medicines? which was organised at the European Parliament on May 16.