Mr. Speaker, I want to acknowledge the importance of the bill being introduced today by the hon. member for Etobicoke North. Nearly 75,000 Canadians live every day with multiple sclerosis, a very debilitating, chronic autoimmune disease. Canada has one of the highest incidences of MS in the world: one person in 500 is affected by the disease. In Canada, three people are diagnosed every day and the disease often strikes people in the prime of life.
Multiple sclerosis is a complex and incurable disease, and the cause is not yet fully understood. It attacks the central nervous system and is characterized by episodes during which symptoms disappear or reappear. Living with multiple sclerosis means living with many physical disabilities. Symptoms include vision problems, muscle pain, tingling or numbness in the extremities, loss of balance, impaired speech and sometimes even partial or total paralysis.
Although multiple sclerosis is incurable for now, medical research has found drugs for managing the symptoms. Some treatments help reduce the attacks and slow the progression of the disease. However, the drugs are often quite expensive and are not always covered by insurance. Life for those with MS is very difficult. Finding out that you have a chronic, incurable disease when you are 18, 19, 20 or 35 and that you will have to live with its effects for the rest of your life is painfully difficult.
The hon. member for Etobicoke North spoke about the discoveries made by an Italian doctor, Dr. Paolo Zamboni. In 2009, he published a study that seemed to show that multiple sclerosis might be linked to poor blood circulation in the neck veins. The Italian researcher called this problem chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency, or CCSVI. His study raised the hopes of many who suffer from multiple sclerosis.
Other studies have been conducted in a number of countries to try to establish whether there is a link between venous insufficiency and multiple sclerosis. Some clinics in the United States, Poland and Italy have begun unblocking veins to help alleviate patients' suffering. The procedure, which is called angioplasty, has produced astounding results in some cases. Patients say that their symptoms decreased by 50% to 80%. In some cases, they regained some of their mobility. Other patients, however, did not experience any beneficial effects. In addition, at least two Canadian patients who went abroad to receive treatment died as a result of the procedure.
One of the problems with the CCSVI treatment is the lack of international standards. Techniques vary, as does the quality of treatment. Private clinics that offer treatment are not all supervised. It is also important to point out that researchers do not agree on CCSVI. Some articles confirm Zamboni's hypothesis, while others refute it, which is why it is important to conduct clinical trials, as called for by the member for Etobicoke North.
In June 2011, a few months ago, the federal government announced that it would provide funding for the first two phases of clinical trials. On November 25, it launched a request for research proposals, some 13 months after the initial request made by the hon. Liberal member. The research team will be selected in March 2012. It will not begin its trials until May 2012. That is an extremely long time from now. It is far too long.
In a phase I trial, a small group of people is selected to evaluate the safety of the procedure. Phase II trials are performed on a larger group of patients and are designed to assess the efficacy of the procedure. We look forward to getting reliable results. The government could have launched clinical trials as early as 2009, but it took the opposition's insistence for the government to finally take action. Patients are waiting. It is time to act.
The government says that we have to trust the scientific data, and that is precisely what we are asking it to do, to trust the scientific data and to proceed as quickly as possible with clinical trials conducted by health researchers. The government has to move on this as soon as possible. It has to show political will and leadership on this matter, which is vital to thousands of patients in Canada alone. Until there is a cure for this disease, we have to help those living with multiple sclerosis and their families.
Many people who have MS must use a wheelchair to get around. We know that there are still many barriers to mobility in our buildings. Some people have to renovate their homes, others have difficulty finding suitable housing, and still others even have to live in long-term care facilities. Daily life is not easy.
Despite the disease and its symptoms, many people continue to work, some full time and some part time. In order to lead an active life, they often have to count on help from their loved ones. Our society should recognize that care. There are a number of things we could do to support people who have MS and their families. For instance, the federal government could make employment insurance sickness benefits more flexible so that people who have MS can work part time without losing any income.
The government could also offer refundable tax credits to people with a disability and to family caregivers. Many family caregivers have also been calling for tax benefits, given their very difficult financial situation.
Society as a whole must engage in the fight against MS. Canadian researchers must advance the science and find a cure for this disease. Our governments must commit to supporting not only research, but also the people who have the disease in their quest for a healthy life.
We therefore support the bill introduced by the member for Etobicoke North. We hope it will pass quickly and that the government will manage the clinical trials effectively in order to find solutions to this terrible disease as soon as possible.
As I said earlier, the government must show political will and leadership so the scientists can begin the clinical trial process and so that MS patients can finally have access to Dr. Zamboni's treatment, or any other treatment that is proven safe, effective and reliable by our experts in health research.