Murray Rankin on the National Lyme Disease Strategy Act (Bill C-442)

Murray Rankin: Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise and speak to Bill C-442, An Act respecting a National Lyme Disease Strategy, at this second reading stage. Again, I would like to acknowledge the work of my colleague from Saanich—Gulf Islands in bringing forward this very important initiative.


I want to say from the very outset that the official opposition will be voting in favour of this bill.

I want to acknowledge as well the pioneering work of former MP, Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who, well over five years ago, urged the health minister to implement such a strategy. Our NDP health critic from Vancouver East has also written to the Minister of Health about this issue and pushed very hard to establish a national strategy to diagnose, treat and do better surveillance for Lyme Disease in response to the growing threat of infection from coast to coast. Both she and I have seconded this important bill. Receiving early and appropriate treatment would improve the quality of life for thousands of Canadians and their families.

Lyme Disease is one of the fastest-growing infectious diseases in North America. I have heard first-hand about its devastating effect from a constituent, Nicole Bottles, who is a 20-year-old sufferer of Lyme Disease. She is now in a wheelchair and met with me in Ottawa to advocate for this national-strategy bill.

Early treatment of Lyme Disease reduces the severity and duration of the illness. Experts agree that more accurate testing and earlier treatment of Lyme Disease would reduce the health-care costs associated with a lengthy illness and the more severe side effects, particularly for women, who suffer longer-lasting effects when their Lyme Disease goes untreated. As members know, Lyme Disease is caused by a specific bacterium spread through tick bites. It is one of the most under-diagnosed diseases in Canada. However, Lyme Disease symptoms can range from a localized rash to fatigue to very serious central nervous system disorders that can lead to paralysis.

Let me begin by outlining the nature of the disease, then talk about what Bill C-442 is intended to do to address the problem.

Last month, the newspaper in my community, the Victoria Times Colonist, reported that a Vancouver Island hawk became the first raptor to join the list of species believed to spread Lyme Disease. Research scientist John Scott found a Cooper’s hawk with 22 ticks on it, 4 of which were infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme Disease. It is the first raptor or bird of prey known to host this bacterium. The Cooper’s hawk was found on the doorstep of a house in Oak Bay, part of my constituency. It flew into a window. Then it was delivered to the wild animal rehabilitation centre near Victoria, where it was examined.

Five of the six species of ticks that live on Vancouver Island are apparently involved in the transmission of Lyme Disease. Other known reservoir hosts include songbirds, deer, mice and rabbits. I would agree with my hon. friend opposite from South Shore—St. Margaret’s that deer have become an increasing part of the problem, and in communities such as Oak Bay, the rapid increase in the deer population can only cause additional concern about the spread of this devastating disease because the ticks feed on the blood of animals and humans and pass on Lyme Disease. The ticks feed on these species which include mice, birds and the like; then they carry the bacterium and bite humans and the disease cycle begins.

Ticks are most common during the warmer months, so Canadians who live in areas of our country with mild winter temperatures and minimal snowfall, such as in southern Vancouver Island, have an increased risk of coming into contact with ticks. However, as Bill C-442 notes in its preamble, climate change is one of the factors that is causing more and more regions of Canada to be at risk. As we are experiencing more warmer weather ahead of us, that would only increase the tick distribution across the country, as scientists have predicted.

By 2009, Canadian physicians were required to report on cases of Lyme Disease to their provincial health registries. However, according to CBC News last year, national statistics are still unavailable at this time.

Recently, as the hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands mentioned, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the number of people in the United States affected by Lyme disease was around 300,000, but that figure is 10 times higher than what is reported to that agency. In the province of New Brunswick in 2009, there were 128 confirmed cases of Lyme disease, but by 2011, that number had doubled to 258.

Lyme disease, if treated at early stages with antibiotics and the removal of the tick, can avoid the severe neurological symptoms that often occur. I am told that in some states in the United States, such as Massachusetts, it is relatively routine for the tick to be removed and antibiotics administered at that early stage. However, there seems to be a different level of awareness in Canada, hence, the need for the strategy before us.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any standardized testing for Lyme disease in Canada, so Lyme disease advocates and health practitioners say the different types of blood tests performed to identify Lyme disease currently yield inaccurate results. What does that mean? It means that patients who in fact have Lyme disease are often not diagnosed or are misdiagnosed with such illnesses as multiple sclerosis or chronic fatigue syndrome. They do not receive the appropriate treatment, thereby exacerbating the symptoms. I have spoken with some patients from Victoria who say that they have had to travel to other countries, as the member opposite for Sault Ste. Marie has also acknowledged, possibly because the treatment in Canada ranges so dramatically and is often inadequate.

What would Bill C-442 do, then? First, it would track the incidence rates, create educational materials to raise awareness about Lyme disease, and establish testing and treatment guidelines, as well as track the related economic impacts of Lyme disease. Second, Bill C-442 would support research and implementation of better and more reliable diagnostic testing, as well as increased education and awareness among physicians. In short, the bill would create a coordinated strategy, which is long overdue.

Canadians deserve to get adequate testing and treatment for this disease. The federal government is responsible for improving the surveillance of Lyme disease, as well as establishing best practices so that the province can better understand the disease and adopt evidence-based measures to improve outcomes.

The Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, or CanLyme, is in full support of Bill C-442. President Wilson stated, “This bill responds to the failure of existing guidelines to reliably detect and treat Lyme disease”.

As the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands already noted, the College of Family Physicians Canada has also supported Bill C-442. It stated as follows, “The CFPC 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”.

I regret that past governments have failed to take the appropriate leadership role on a range of important health issues, including the kind of coordination and funding that is necessary for health innovations, testing, and treatment. It is only in 2009 that we began to track Lyme disease and some have argued in my office that there has been a failure to heed the pleas to advance testing and treatment options in this country. Therefore, this is an issue where the federal government must show leadership in health care and work to better protect and support the health of Canadians.

This is far from a partisan issue. It does not help at all to talk about past governments. We want to stand firm with the hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands and all members of the House to address this problem. The time to act is now. Sufferers from Lyme disease are looking to the government for leadership. The official opposition wants to be part of that solution. It is time to get on with it. New Democrats will be voting in support of this bill.