From the CEO – Unpacking Our Bulgarian Visit

26 March 2024

When it comes to tackling a disease like cancer, no two countries in Europe are the same. I discovered that once again last week when ECO visited Bulgaria to support our national partners, including our Patient Advisory Committee member Teodora Kolarova.

This is a country that's seen more than its share of political turmoil. Coalition governments come and go every year. Stability? Continuity? That's the stuff of Bulgarian dreams. Even during our visit, news headlines warned that yet another coalition was just hours away from collapsing.

I thought to myself, great timing. No one here will want to join us at the parliament for a discussion on cancer. I was so wrong.

The chamber was packed with parliamentarians and policymakers from across the political spectrum. What each recognised was that joining the fight against cancer is one of the surest ways to make a difference – and boost a political career.

We came to Bulgaria, as we do to any country, to collaborate, to share our own experiences and learn from theirs. Not surprising in light of the political chaos, Bulgarian cancer statistics are often woeful. While our European Cancer Pulse Country Report showed that cervical cancer screening is on par with the rest of Europe, screening for colorectal and breast cancers is significantly below the EU average. HPV vaccination is only for girls, and only 1.5% of them ages 9 to 14 have been vaccinated according to their own health ministry.

What we were able to do there last week was to support the Bulgarian organisations that are trying to address these challenges. They've got the right people. They know what to do, but they have a healthcare system and a political system that have not been supportive.

That's where ECO and a broader European collaboration can play a pivotal role. Our visit to a national capital helps shine a bright light on cancer and the effective ways to tackle it.

I've discovered that just having a delegation from the ECO community draws attention. And it happened again during our discussions at the Bulgarian Parliament. The deputy health minister, who had been to our Cancer Summit in November, suddenly stood up and announced that boys would now be included in the country's HPV vaccination programme, regardless of what happens with the government, regardless of who is in power. Now that is big news. We had no idea the announcement was coming, but we're seeing this more often: ECO's mere presence in a country is often a catalyst for better cancer policy.  

We left Bulgaria feeling inspired but wanting to do more, wanting to go back in the coming months and – with our partner organisations – meet the new prime minister, meet the new health minister. We need to support this newfound momentum.

We also want to take the message to other countries and say, 'Look at what they're changing in Bulgaria, look at how they're starting to vaccinate boys in Bulgaria. They may be coming from a very low base, but they get it. They're now part of one European approach. That has never existed before'. Europe's Beating Cancer Plan is working.

With best wishes,