Are we up to speed on emerging infectious diseases?

By MPP Toby Barrett
Over the past two millennia, there have been periods in history where disease outbreaks have wreaked havoc on human populations in various parts of the world.

Advances in medicine have tamed some of these diseases, but eradication is still at bay. Those dealing death – like the present concern with Ebola – get most of the attention, but other newly-arrived diseases like West Nile virus and Lyme disease can also be devastating.

Our health system and government are not always prepared. We saw this during the SARs outbreak in Toronto. The medical system quickly adapted to what was previously an unknown disease, but it spread quickly before it was under control. Many people paid with their lives, and the city’s tourism industry paid an economic price.

BSE was front-page news when cattle were slaughtered to stop its spread. The beef industry adapted and put protocols in place to prevent any future cases. What is not widely known is some sectors of the beef economy are still paying a price over a decade later.

A few years ago, a predominant public health issue in southern Ontario was West Nile virus. Carried by mosquitoes, West Nile can reside in crows and blue jays and then transfer to humans by the bite of a mosquito. It first surfaced in Ontario in 2001.

Just 40 years ago, Lyme, West Nile, SARs, H1N1 cases were unheard of in North America. An Ebola outbreak has long been a fear. In today’s global society, with changing environments, diseases are changing and those in charge need to be prepared – as do the rest of us.

This summer, I met with three area residents, all who were in the prime of their lives. They had families, careers and a future to strive for. Little did they know their lives would be turned upside down when they contracted Lyme.

Diagnosis of what initially ailed them was not an easy task. And when they found the problem, the trio – like others in their situation – reported the health care system wasn’t there for them. Lyme disease victims often pay out of their own pocket to be diagnosed in the United States.

Lyme is often thought of as a disease people pick up while spending recreation time in the outdoors. One of the residents I met with caught it while working on a Long Point cottage. Farmers should also be cognizant of ticks after working in brush or long grass.

For Lyme disease victims, there is a push to create a provincial framework. The hope is this will bring more awareness amongst medical professionals.

Emerging infectious diseases often start in animals. To get technical, diseases originating in animals are called zoonoses. HIV, SARs, H1N1, Ebola, West Nile and Lyme are all zoonoses. The zoonoses transmitted by an insect, tick or other animal, are also referred to as vector-borne diseases.

Since last July, I have been drafting legislation – specifically a Private Member’s Bill — An Act to Require the Introduction of Legislation to Provide a Provincial Framework and Action Plan Concerning Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases. My proposed legislation is designed to address some of the shortfalls in research and the medical system, establish a framework and guidelines for dealing with these ailments, and provide better information and education for the public.

Please send me your thoughts – [email protected]