Lyme/vector-borne disease bill passes into law

By MPP Toby Barrett

When I was elected in 1995, the Long Point area was the only area identified as an endemic area for deer ticks in southern Ontario. Lyme disease wasn’t on most people’s radar.

That has changed – and not for the better!

Bill 27, the Provincial Framework and Action Plan concerning Emerging Vector-Borne Diseases Act, 2015 tackles the issue. In June it received Royal Assent and is now the law of the land. It requires the Minister of Health to develop an action plan and framework in regards to maladies such as Lyme disease.

Lyme disease has become enough of a concern that more than 150 people crowded Queen’s Park for an awareness day as part of Lyme Awareness Month.

I was so compelled by my meetings with Lyme disease sufferers a year ago, I proposed a Private Member’s Bill to tackle this issue. Make no mistake about it, this is not just a disease that hunters, anglers, farmers and outdoor enthusiasts need to worry about. One of the individuals that I met picked up Lyme while working – and he wasn’t in long grass or brush.

Many report our health care system isn’t there for them. Lyme victims often pay out of their own pocket to be diagnosed in the United States.

Lyme is often mistaken for the flu. Symptoms can include: fatigue, fever or chills, headache, numbness or tingling, spasms, skin rash, brain fog, dizziness, swollen nymph nodes, arthritis and arthritic symptoms and abnormal heartbeat. Flu-like symptoms in the warmer months could warrant seeking medical advice.

Lyme is defined as a vector-borne disease and the black-legged (deer) ticks that spread it are the vector. It isn’t the only relatively-new vector-borne disease wreaking havoc with the health system and people’s lives. West Nile virus is another example. Carried by mosquitos, just about anyone is vulnerable.

West Nile symptoms include fever, headache, body ache, fatigue, back pain, skin rash and swollen nymph nodes. Close to one per cent of those infected will develop serious neurological symptoms.

Bill 27 requires government to:
* Enhance provincial surveillance by using data to properly track incidence rates of emerging vector-borne diseases.
* Establish guidelines regarding the prevention, identification, treatment and management of emerging vector-borne diseases, including preparedness guidelines and the sharing of best practices throughout the province.
* Create and distribute standardized educational materials related to emerging vector-borne diseases, for use by health care providers and by members of the public, designed to increase awareness about those diseases.
* Promote research in connection with emerging vector-borne diseases.
Bill 27 was one of the few times I have seen all three parties agree on something. The first two readings came fairly quickly, but then the bill seemed to be caught in administrative red tape at the committee level. It was chosen as one of two bills my caucus put forward with unanimous consent from the other parties for approval before the end of the last session of the Legislature.

With Bill 27 passed, what’s next for victims of vector-borne diseases? The bill is set up to allow the Ontario Minister of Health to execute its intentions. Change won’t come overnight – and as reinforced during a Grimsby roundtable on Lyme last week – will require a continued and concerted effort from us all.