Mr. Speaker, thalidomide is a word that resonates in Canadian cultural history. It is one of those words that one only has to hear, say, or read to evoke immediate and strong feelings. It has gone down in our collective national memory as a mark of human suffering. It is a sad symbol of scientific and governmental failure.
Canadians have a profound faith in the capacity of modern science to improve their quality of life, and this faith is justified. Scientists and researchers keep developing new effective medicines to treat and heal disease. Canadians expect their governments to protect them from unsafe drugs, and this is an expectation that has largely been fulfilled. Over the decades, Canada has enjoyed one of the best drug safety systems in the world.
However, science and governments can fail. Thalidomide is one of those failures. From both sides of the House today, we have heard terrible stories of the shattering human toll of the catastrophic failure that was thalidomide. We have also been reminded that while thalidomide is an awful lesson of history for the survivors, it is very much their present and their future.
As a government, we can help the victims of this tragedy, and I am proud today to stand in support of this motion. I am also pleased to hear that the Minister of Health will be meeting with the victims and is actively reviewing the proposal put forward by the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada.
Today I want to talk about another aspect of this tragic failure, and the solution so that it does not happen again: transparency and openness. More specifically, I want to talk about the significant steps that the Minister of Health has taken to further enhance the culture of transparency at Health Canada.
The victims of thalidomide never had a chance. Their mothers never had any warning and never saw it coming. Although there was a heated debate at the time within international scientific and regulatory communities about the safety of thalidomide, this concern was never shared with the public. As a result, expectant mothers suffering from morning sickness, and their doctors, were denied the chance to make an informed choice about whether to use thalidomide.
By approving the drug, Canadian regulators took what they viewed at that time as being a justified risk on behalf of potential victims without telling them about it. Many things have changed since thalidomide, but one thing that has not and likely never will is the fact that all drugs come with risks and benefits. The choice that still faces any drug regulator is the determination, based on sound science, of whether the benefits of taking a given drug outweigh the potential health risks to patients.
What has become unacceptable to Canadians, especially post-thalidomide, is for our regulators to restrict the public availability of information about drug risks. It is unacceptable to convey the false impression that such topics are best left to qualified experts in government, industry, and the health professions.
Mr. Speaker, you and I, and most Canadians, may not be scientists, but we have a right to know all that we can about the drugs we are taking, the good and the bad. At the end of the day, it is our lives, our health, and it should be a choice. That means we deserve an informed choice based on best information available to us at the time.
In the years since thalidomide, Health Canada has taken an expectation of transparency to heart. Today the department makes more drug safety information available to Canadians than ever before, so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. Every year, the department issues hundreds of health product risk communications, by way of public warnings, public advisories, information updates, and foreign product alerts.
This includes product recalls, as well as changes to drug labels that are required to inform Canadians about any new and emerging risks of using a particular drug. These communications are widely disseminated to media and health professionals. Health Canada also requires that drug makers publicly communicate any new drug product risks.
The department now posts the drug product database on the Internet, where Canadians can find the list of risks and benefits of any approved drug or publicly available product. It has also created the Canada vigilance adverse reaction online database. Here, Canadians can find out about adverse reactions that have been reported to the department.
Increasing the availability of information to Canadians is a fundamental pillar of the Minister of Health's openness and transparency framework at Health Canada.
When our government took office, it was clear that the level of transparency at Health Canada had improved significantly from the days of thalidomide, but we felt it could do more and do it better. We particularly felt that information that Health Canada shares with the public needed to be easier to understand and more accessible.
We directed the launch of the recalls and safety alerts database. It provides Canadians with one-stop access to the latest risks information on all food and consumer products, including health products. The framework and action plan shows Canadians the concrete and incremental steps that we are taking to improve their access to timely, useful, and relevant health and safety information.Each year, Health Canada will issue a report on how it has performed against those commitments. This too will be posted online, on Health Canada's transparency page.
Each year, Health Canada performs numerous reviews of the safety of specific approved drugs. These are done when the department receives scientific evidence that a new risk is emerging and needs to be assessed, to see if the approved uses of a drug need to be changed to help protect patients. Sometimes during these reviews, a risk is confirmed and requires additional safety action by the regulator, but this is not often the case.
Before the announcement on the framework, the finding of these studies was typically made available only by way of access to information requests. Under the framework, a commitment was made to post public summaries of drug safety reviews proactively. This has made Canada a world leader in communicating this kind of drug safety information.
This House has heard a good deal today about Bill C-17, known as Vanessa's law. Its passage is a quantum leap forward for drug safety in Canada.
We all know that this bill was inspired by another tragedy, the death of the daughter of our colleague, the member for Oakville. She died while using medication that she did not know was unsafe. I am inspired by the hon. member's example and honoured that he is in our caucus. I am proud that our government has delivered a concrete legislative response to the suffering of his family and other families like his.
To send a message that a government is serious about becoming more transparent and putting the health and safety of Canadians first, there were amendments introduced to Bill C-17 that added transparency provisions. The transparency measures introduced in Vanessa's law will also place an obligation on therapeutic product authorization holders to ensure that information concerning any clinical trials is made public.
I want to close by acknowledging that none of these measures alleviate the current suffering of thalidomide victims. It is only to highlight how our government has taken to heart the lessons that thalidomide has taught about the importance of transparency and openness about drug safety to Canadians.
I look forward to hearing how the Minister of Health is engaging the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada and how we might support the victims in their plight.