Legislation that addresses new and emerging diseases

By MPP Toby Barrett

Those who work and play in Ontario are cognizant of COVID, but we need also remember that another emerging infectious disease continues to lurk. As with coronavirus, we must remain vigilant and continue to take measures to prevent the onset of Lyme.

In 2015, and out of concern of what might come next after the SARS epidemic, I introduced a Private Member’s Bill to mandate government to be better prepared for the potential onslaught of the next emerging infectious disease.

As I argued at the time, in our globalized society, diseases are changing and those in charge must be prepared to meet these changes.

The worldwide financial cost of SARS was $40 billion and the bill for Canada came in at $2 billion – part of the reason for my urgency to better enable government to head off the next outbreak which, in my view, could have been MERS, Marburg virus, Zika virus or Ebola. Of course, no one was talking about COVID-19 back then.

We have government for a reason and the mechanisms of pre-worked out policy to attempt to resolve or, at least, amelivate these kinds of dimensions and disputes.

The legislation I crafted in 2015 essentially set in place a decision-making structure and set in place policies for Ontario to hit the ground running the next time.

The Ontario Liberal government of the day agreed to pass the bill if I would delete the legislative measures with respect to offshore threats like Ebola, and instead focus on already-present zoonotic diseases like Lyme. As an Opposition MPP I had limited bargaining resources, so I agreed.

My Private Member’s Bill, titled A Provincial Framework and Action Plan Concerning Emerging Vector-borne Diseases Act 2015 thus became law. The law was designed to address some of the shortfalls in research and our medical system, to establish a framework and guidelines for dealing with these shortfalls, and to provide better information and education for the public.

As I explained in the Ontario Legislature during debate, when new or relatively unknown diseases advance, public health and disease treatment mechanisms are often not in place. Public health will scramble to respond, as do treatment systems, but in many cases with less than satisfactory results. 

The treatment of Lyme disease, as is the case with coronavirus, is fraught with conflicting medical, social, scientific and political dimensions – disputes long overdue for resolution. Social media is accused of communicating inaccurate medical and preventative information, and pitches for dubious treatment. But there are also allegations of shortcomings in the diagnosis and treatment of both Lyme and COVID directed at mainstream medicine.

The legislation enshrined in law a mandate for the Minister of Health to follow a framework and a plan of action. It is a plan that, first and foremost, encompasses surveillance, education materials and guidelines – guidelines for prevention, identification, diagnosis, treatment and management, including emergency preparedness. It calls for the sharing of best practices provincial and across the country. And it instructs the Minister of Health to bolster the collaboration of research.

Diseases are changing, and those in charge must change as well. Hence my legislation with respect to a comprehensive framework and action plan to address new and emerging diseases.

Toby Barrett is MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk.