Private Members Business – National Lyme Disease Strategy Act

On Monday, March 3rd, 2014 in Parliament, Private Members Bills

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, today I am very honoured to introduce this bill for a national strategy on Lyme disease at second reading. When we are able to work together as members of Parliament, anything is possible.

Today I stand here with the great honour of presenting a bill in my name. If I could, I would remove my name and put the names of all of us on it. This is a truly non-partisan effort, and this is reflected in the process of this legislation in the House so far.

At first reading, in June 2012, the seconder of my bill was my friend the hon. Liberal member for Etobicoke North, who has been very active on many health issues. Today I have the enormous honour of having my bill seconded by the hon. member for Oakville, himself a champion on a number of health issues. I commend him and the Minister of Health, in fact all of the Conservative members, for bringing forward Bill C-17, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act, Vanessa’s law. I look forward to seeing that legislation made into law. These are important steps, which prove that individuals can change public policy, as I hope we will here.

By coincidence, the hon. member for Oakville has also taken a stand on the Lyme disease issue, having written a foreword to a Canadian book called Ending Denial: The Lyme Disease Epidemic.

In this non-partisan spirit, the official opposition, the New Democratic Party, was the first party to signal full support for my bill. The New Democratic Party health critic, the hon. member for Vancouver East, signalled some time ago that I could count on her party’s support. It means a tremendous amount to me personally to have this support. It acknowledges the importance of this legislation.

The hon. member for Edmonton—Spruce Grove, the Minister of Health, has herself been very willing to work with me, which means the bill has the potential for success. We have sat down and worked over this bill, and there are some amendments that I would expect to see in committee. I do not regard them in any way as other than helpful. This bodes well for our ability to work together to make a difference on this issue.

What is this issue? Everyone in the Chamber is now familiar with the fact that Lyme disease is spreading. It is spread through a very specific bacteria that is carried by ticks, often blacklegged ticks or deer ticks, and it is now spreading to other species of ticks. The bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi is a bacterium that brings with it both a potential personal tragedy and a very troubling set of symptoms for diagnosis.

As I have said, this disease is spread through ticks. As we have seen, this disease can be delivered to other areas through the agency of birds. The range in which these ticks occurs across Canada has been spreading, and it is part of the increase in vector-borne diseases that are anticipated in relation to global warming and the climate crisis.

We know there are more cases of the disease. It was shocking to many, when in the summer of 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, Georgia, issued a revised estimate of Lyme disease in the United States. Its new estimate increased the prevalence of Lyme disease ten-fold, reporting that the previous year’s 30,000 cases were probably 300,000. This is a timely reminder to us in Canada that the incidence of Lyme disease is spreading.

To the credit of Health Canada, since 2009 Lyme disease has been a reportable illness in Canada. There is no question that we know it exists in Canada, and health professionals have a mandatory duty to report a diagnosis of Lyme disease. We are also aware that it is under-reported. Currently any medical practitioner who diagnosis Lyme disease has a responsibility to inform the provincial health authorities, who in turn report this to the Public Health Agency of Canada. At this point, only 310 cases have been reported across Canada.

I am sure my colleagues on all sides of the House know that the number of cases is somewhat low, just in terms of our own anecdotal experience of constituents who have Lyme disease, and from the number of petitions we have received in this place from people urging us to find a solution and urging better treatment and a cure. We cannot estimate exactly how low that is, but as in the United States, I think we will find that as we increase awareness we will have a clearer understanding of the incidence of the disease.

Let me review quickly what the bill would do. This is a bill to deal with the threat of Lyme disease, but it does it in a couple of different ways. The bill’s goals are to create a national surveillance system dealing with the problem that I just mentioned; we do not always have good information on exactly where the ticks are spreading and how prevalent they are.

The other area that is important is to get a handle on better awareness, perhaps national standards, or at least a sharing of best practices, to understand the challenges of diagnosis and treatment.

The bill calls for:

3.(b) the establishment of guidelines regarding the prevention, identification, treatment and management of Lyme disease, including a recommended national standard of care that reflects current best practices for the treatment of Lyme disease;

It also calls on the Minister of Health, working with others, to create a national program of educational materials to increase public awareness, but also to assist medical professionals. The process by which this would take place is that once the bill has come into force, there would be a mandatory obligation on the minister of health to convene, within six months, a national conference of provincial and territorial ministers of health, as well as the stakeholders, who are described in the bill as representatives of the medical community and patient groups, for the purpose of developing this national framework.

I am very heartened that at this relatively early stage in the consideration of Bill C-442, it has already received the support of important elements within the medical community. I want to cite particularly, and to thank, Eric Mang, director, health policy and government relations for the College of Family Physicians of Canada, who wrote in the fall of 2013 that they support the bill. He stated:

[The College of Family Physicians of Canada] supports further studying the economic and health impacts of Lyme Disease to ensure that Canadian physicians have the necessary tools and knowledge at their disposal. Guidelines produced as part of the strategy should include the input of family physicians and be available to all primary health care providers.

Even more recently, on February 27, 2014, I was thrilled to receive a letter from the Canadian Medical Association and its president, Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti. Coming from the medical community, it is important that I read some of this letter into the record at second reading debate. He wrote the following:

Diagnosis of Lyme disease can be difficult because signs and symptoms can be non-specific and found in other conditions. If Lyme disease is not recognized during the early stages, patients may suffer seriously debilitating disease that may be more difficult to treat. Given the increasing incidence of Lyme disease in Canada, continuing education for health care and public health professionals and a national standard of care can improve identification, treatment and management of this disease. Greater awareness of where ticks are endemic in Canada, as well as information on the disease and prevention measures, can help Canadians protect themselves from infection. A national Lyme disease strategy that includes representation from the federal, provincial and territorial governments, the medical and patient communities can address concerns around research, surveillance, diagnosis, treatment and management of the disease. In addition, public health prevention measures will advance our current knowledge base, and improve the care and treatment of those suffering from Lyme disease.

With the support of those two important associations of medical professionals, the Canadian Medical Association and the College of Family Physicians of Canada, I am encouraged to know that we can work together as members of Parliament from all parties in this place. The approach set out in the bill for a national conference urges federal and provincial jurisdictional responsibility in the health community; the medical community, the doctors, health care professionals, nurses, people who deal with trying to sort out a diagnosis for Lyme disease when it is not always easy; and the patient communities, people who have advocated, who have cried out for help, people for whom this bill represents the first ray of light in what, for many, has been years of suffering. I am enormously encouraged by the support from the medical community.

I want to now turn to the support from the patient community. I would never have thought to put forward a private member’s bill on Lyme disease had I not encountered so many Canadians who are suffering from the disease. My first friend who told me she had Lyme disease was Brenda Sterling, of Pictou County, Nova Scotia. From her wheelchair, she told me that she had been bitten by a tick and now she was virtually disabled. I was shocked. I did not know Lyme disease could be so serious when I first met Brenda, but she educated me about it.

Then when I moved to Saanich—Gulf Islands and was living in Sidney, I kept meeting people who were experiencing Lyme disease, some of them kids. It is heartbreaking to know a brilliant, beautiful young woman, Nicole Bottles, who is in a wheelchair and not able to go school. It is not because the wheelchair is a difficulty, but because the Lyme disease, as she says, muddles her brain from time to time. She has trouble concentrating and she has not been able to keep up with her schooling. However, she and her mother, Chris Powell, whom I think have met many of the people in this chamber today, have come to Ottawa and advocated for Bill C-442. They see it as a way to get to better levels of awareness.

I am so grateful to James, Michael, and other young constituents, like Eric, and his family. When I think about why I chose this bill, it had a lot to do with Eric and his family. His father-in-law was a strong supporter of mine, and I wondered how I could ever thank him. I am thankful to Fraser, among many people, for my bringing forward a bill that could try to make a difference in thousands of lives.

As we work toward this bill, let us keep a couple of hopeful things in mind. One is that we should never fear the outdoors. Some people have come to me since this bill was tabled saying, “For Heaven’s sake, be careful that we don’t create fear of going outside”. I want to emphasize that is not my intention.

I subscribe to the view of some who have described nature deficit disorder as a real threat to our kids. They need to get out and engage with wilderness. They need to be in nature. It increases learning abilities, capabilities, and emotional maturity. It is great for kids to spend time outdoors.

We have become used to the education challenge of a thinning ozone layer, which due to the Montreal protocol is reversing the thinning process. Over the years we have become used to asking what the UV rating is, wearing long-sleeved shirts, remembering to use sunscreen, and wearing a broad-rimmed hat, something that did not occur when I was a kid. These are common-sense prevention measures.

We need common sense to be a part of our daily routine. When our kids go out to play, we need to say, “Tuck your pant legs into your socks”, and when they come in from playing outdoors, to say, “Let me give you a quick check to make sure you haven’t picked up a tick”. Those kinds of things are common-sense prevention measures.

The good news when facing Lyme disease is that it is preventable. That is why a federal framework makes so much sense. If we are aware of the disease, and watchful, we will not get it in the first place. However, if we do get it and diagnosis is speedy and correct, the treatment works. The treatment need not take long, and one can recover to a complete state of health and well-being.

Lastly, let us shine a light of hope for those dealing with the challenge of continuing debilitating symptoms. With a real focus and continued research, we can find treatment measures that will work for the entire Lyme patient community.

I am indebted to all of the members who have come here this morning for second reading, and thankful for their support. With their help, this bill will become law.

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