Thank you, Mr. Chair.
It is a great honour for me to appear before you as a witness on Bill C-442, An Act respecting a National Lyme Disease Strategy.
This bill was conceived in a non-partisan perspective in order to help people everywhere in the country. I hope that in an equally non-partisan spirit, we will be able to create the strategy set out in the bill.
The bill would introduce a collaboration framework involving the federal, provincial and territorial ministers, as well as representatives from the medical community and patients' groups, in order to expedite diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
I think all members are now quite familiar with the fact that Lyme disease is spreading, particularly across southern Canada.
As I just mentioned in French, I have to say that this is a very non-partisan effort. I am enormously grateful to all members and all parties represented in the House for support for this bill. At the top of my list is thanks to the Minister of Health, Rona Ambrose. I know her officials will be coming in the second part of the health committee's review of the bill.
Let me just explain what it is I hope my bill will do, and then I'll talk about some of the supporters we have for this effort. The support, both politically and from the expert medical community, is quite substantial. Of course, Lyme disease patients from coast to coast have been extraordinary in their support and in reaching out with petitions, which I think many of you have tabled in the House on behalf of your constituents, in support of the bill.
As any of you will know, as members, when you set out to write a private member's bill you're very aware of the constraints: it has to fall squarely within federal jurisdiction and it should not attach itself to any measures that involve spending money.
That said, I know that the Minister of Health would like to have some amendments made. I want to get that out right away. From my point of view, the amendments that the minister or the health department officials will bring to you, certainly the ones I've been consulted about, are absolutely fine.
I tried very hard; I called this the national Lyme disease strategy. It may work better in terms of avoiding any treading on provincial jurisdictions to call it a federal framework or something like that. I'm not prescriptive about what the minister brings forward, obviously. But we do want to make sure that it doesn't tread on provincial jurisdiction. That was my intention in drafting. To any extent that I failed to do that, I want to make sure that the bill is a purely federal effort that engages the other jurisdictions in a collaboration.
So that's the first thing to set out: the effort is to make sure that the federal Minister of Health takes the lead, but the engagement is truly across provincial boundaries in a way that's respectful of jurisdictional limits.
In that vein, I'll let you know that I was amazed to discover that just recently a bill has been tabled in the province in Nova Scotia that will mirror this one. So I think that might be the beginning of what we'll see across the country as more provincial jurisdictions are aware of the spread of Lyme within their own area.
I give credit to Health Canada that since 2009 Lyme disease has been a reportable illness. That's quite a lot of progress, because there was a time, a decade or so before that, when you would be hard pressed to find a jurisdiction that thought Lyme disease was a serious problem. There are horror stories.
The first person I knew with Lyme disease was a neighbour in Nova Scotia, Brenda Sterling. She's very prominent in the movement, so I don't mind mentioning her name. But when she first contracted Lyme, she kept trying to talk to provincial authorities in Nova Scotia. They told her they didn't have Lyme disease in Nova Scotia, so therefore she couldn't have it.
Imagine the change that's occurred. As I said, there's a bill before the Nova Scotia legislature that mirrors this bill.
So what will this bill do? Under this bill, the minister will be required to convene a conference. Now, my bill says within six months. The timing around that might change in terms of government amendments. I don't think that's material as long as it's clear that it must happen. The minister will convene a conference of his or her provincial and territorial colleagues in the departments of health, as well as representatives of the medical community, as well as representatives of patients' groups, and that group will work together to develop a strategy.
There are several key elements of what's missing for the best possible approach in Canada to this illness.
One is that we lag behind the U.S. in terms of awareness for prevention—i.e., when people go out on a hike. I was talking yesterday to the cameraman from CBC who interviewed me on this. He's a volunteer Scout leader. He said it's his second job, and he loves it. He takes the kids out in the woods. They have really ramped up their own awareness for tick awareness, such as checking each other for ticks.
We want people to enjoy the outdoors. We don't want people to get phobic about going on hikes and being outdoors. But we need the awareness to tell them to tuck their pant legs into their socks, to check afterwards, to have a friend check to see if they picked up a tick, and then to know what to do if they have. Awareness and prevention are key.
The next piece, which is much more complicated, is the diagnostic piece. In the letter of support from the Canadian Medical Association, which will be tabled with you in both official languages at your next hour's hearing—I've checked that with the clerk and that appears to be fine to do—the president of the Canadian Medical Association, Louis Hugo Francescutti, had this to say:
Diagnosis of Lyme disease can be difficult because signs and symptoms can be non-specific and found in other conditions. If Lyme disease is not recognized during the early stages, patients may suffer seriously debilitating disease that may be more difficult to treat.
We should find ways to share best practices across jurisdictional lines between members of the medical community so there is a shared understanding of best practices for diagnosis because, as the Canadian Medical Association has noted, with quick diagnosis, treatment is excellent. It's usually a course or round of antibiotics, and patients return to full health. On the other hand, as with my friend Brenda Sterling in Nova Scotia, left untreated, it's debilitating. When I met her she was already in a wheelchair, and I was shocked at the time to discover that she was in a wheelchair due to Lyme disease.
The next piece, of course, is better treatment and management, and that again can be done through sharing of best practices within members of the medical community and finding a recommended national approach that will reflect best practices for treatment of Lyme disease.
All of the materials that can be shared are described in the bill so that there's a public health aspect of this to increase the awareness to help the medical community with the treatment and management of this disease.
The bill goes on to describe the ways in which the Minister of Health will, in an ongoing fashion, share information and help the medical community and provincial and territorial colleagues to work together so that the spread of Lyme disease does not represent a significant threat of permanently debilitating illness to Canadians when it's easily treatable if properly diagnosed. Also there are ways to avoid contracting the illness by being aware of ticks and tick bites.
This is pretty straightforward. I just want to stress one thing about the illness. We know it is under-reported in Canada. How would we know this? In the United States last summer in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, based on their understanding of the disease in the United States, increased their estimate of the prevalence of the disease tenfold from 30,000 understood cases to probably in the range of 300,000.
We can assume the same is likely the case for Canada. Since tabling my bill I've had literally hundreds of Canadians write to my office with personal stories. I've also had health professionals, both nurses and doctors, contact my office and say, “I know that in my own province of X, we have only x number of reported cases, but we think it's far higher.”
We are actually acting in a timely fashion. The Parliament of Canada is doing something really useful and helpful, and the Minister of Health in the lead can make a real difference in the lives of Canadians, those who are already suffering with Lyme, and those who can avoid suffering with the steps that can be taken through a federal framework.
I have one very last comment, Mr. Chair. This is not a case where parliamentarians should become doctors, or think we're doctors, or have the politics of the issue have any impact whatsoever on what the medical community decides around the issue. I think that's really important. In some cases in the U.S., there have been some areas where the medical community has felt that politicians went too far. I'm very grateful, again, that in Canada the established medical community and organizations are very supportive of this bill. We're not doctors. We're here to work on public policy.
With that, I open the floor to any questions anyone may have.