An action plan for West Nile, Lyme, Ebola, . . .

By MPP Toby Barrett

Over the past several months, I’ve developed legislation designed to better enable the Province of Ontario to deal with emerging infectious diseases – diseases such as West Nile, Lyme, Ebola – diseases that seem to catch all of us flat-footed when they emerge. We must also have plans and programs in place designed to anticipate new threats. Will we be facing the Marburg virus next?

My Private Member’s Bill, if passed, requires the Minister of Health to develop a provincial framework and action plan that establishes a provincial surveillance program, as well as educational materials and guidelines regarding the prevention, identification, treatment and management of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases. The bill will also promote research and require collaboration among all concerned.

Vector-borne and zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases whose transmission involves animal hosts, and in some cases vectors, for example, mosquitoes or ticks.

With such emerging infectious diseases competing for attention and scarce resources, my bill calls for a provincial framework built on objective science to set priorities for the allocation of those resources.

A surveillance program must be designed to properly track incidence rates and associated economic costs. Timely and accurate information is crucial to detect and monitor outbreaks. It is more cost effective to prevent infectious diseases then it is to treat them. The world-wide cost of SARS, for example was pegged at $40 billion. Canada’s cost was $2 billion. Much of the spread of SARS was blamed on lax prevention and hygiene practices. Prevention is key. And where there is no vaccine or effective treatment for a disease, prevention is the only option.

There is obviously much work yet to be done with respect to treatment and management. The treatment of Lyme disease, for example, appears to be fraught with conflicting medical, scientific, political and social dimensions – disputes long overdue for resolution. Social media has been accused of communicating inaccurate medical information, and pitches for dubious treatment. But there are also allegations of shortcomings in the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme directed at mainstream medicine.

The legislation I am proposing mandates emergency preparedness guidelines and the sharing of best practices throughout Ontario. It proposes standardized educational materials, not only for use by health care providers, but also for members of the public. I think it is safe to say not all hospitals, or long-term care facilities, or municipalities are Ebola-ready, for example.

Nursing organizations in Ontario and elsewhere have indicated they do not feel they are adequately trained, prepared, or protected. They criticize the lack of a clear, comprehensive plan and strategy for Ebola. At time of writing, Ontario’s Minister of Health indicated he is working with employers and his counterparts across Canada, and is updating guidelines and protocol to help front-line caregivers.

My proposed legislation also directs the minister to consult with other affected ministries, the federal government and the public with respect to emerging infectious diseases.

Finally, this bill promotes research into these diseases that we know so little about.

The Provincial Framework and Action Plan concerning Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases Act, 2014 will be tabled on Oct. 20. This is the first day the Ontario Legislature reconvenes. The bill is slated for legislative debate at Queen’s Park on Nov. 20.

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