Shortcomings in Ontario’s approach to Lyme disease

By MPP Toby Barrett

Spring has sprung –asparagus is sprouting, trout are biting and turkeys are gobbling.

Spring is the time of the year when farmers, anglers and hunters start finding ticks. Any tick is unpleasant, but the blacklegged (deer) tick can be deadly. The Lyme bacterium it can carry is the biggest fear. Lyme infection can turn a person’s life upside down, ranging from taking away the ability to lead a normal life to death.

Two decades ago, blacklegged ticks were limited to Long Point, Point Pelee, Rondeau and select spots along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Now, the ticks have spread, likely by birds, and are common along the north shores of both Lakes Erie and Ontario.

For a number of years there have been allegations of shortcomings in the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease. Criticism from Lyme victims and their families is directed at both mainstream medicine and the government. As well, social media has been accused of communicating inaccurate medical information and pitches for dubious treatment in the United States.

Spring is also Lyme Awareness Month and last week 150 people attended the Ontario Legislature to raise awareness about Lyme disease. I rose in the House during Question Period to point out that: “In the gallery are victims like (Dunnville’s) Will Yelland, a young man from my riding who’s in the prime of his life and is having it stripped away by this horrific disease. He travels to the United States for treatment, paying tens of thousands of dollars out of his own pocket. Others have been bankrupted or have lost farms.”

Health Minister Hoskins explained during Question Period that Public Health Ontario is reviewing and updating the action plan for Lyme. It includes a review of Lyme testing and diagnosis methods and treatment protocols. South of the border, there are groups working on new guidelines, he said.

As well, Hoskins acknowledged to Lyme advocates present, “I know, as well, that they feel that the government and the primary care providers haven’t necessarily been there to the degree that they should have been at that difficult moment in time.”

There’s presently no legislation directing the Ministry of Health to have a comprehensive plan or program dealing with emerging infectious diseases like Lyme.

Over the past year, I’ve developed legislation designed to better enable the Province of Ontario to deal with diseases such as Lyme, West Nile, and 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.

We need a decision-making structure and policies to better enable the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care to address such diseases – hence my Private Member’s Bill titled Provincial Framework and Action Plan Concerning Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases Act, 2014.

This proposed legislation requires the Minister of Health to develop a provincial framework and action plan that establishes a provincial surveillance program, as well as educational material and guidelines regarding the prevention, identification, treatment and management of Lyme disease. The bill will also promote research and require collaboration among all concerned.

Both my bill, and a motion by MPP Michael Mantha the following week, received all-party support.

We have government for a reason. Victims of Lyme deserve the support of government. The present administration is letting Lyme victims down.