Why we need a national Lyme disease strategy

Elizabeth May

I know a health policy briefing should touch on all areas of health policy. We have critical issues ahead as we work to protect universal access to top-notch health care, reduce wait-times and drug costs, and meet the growing challenges of an aging population. The deficits in our mental health programs alone could occupy the House of Commons for the fall session.

That I write now about Lyme disease is because it is timely and urgent. One of the first private member’s bills slated for second reading in the next session will be Bill C-442. It calls for a National Lyme Disease strategy, and, while I am the author of the bill, I hope it will not be seen as “my bill,” but rather as a bill every Member of Parliament, regardless of party affiliation, can champion.

Related: Support Bill C-442. Sign the petition!

At least for those MPs representing regions of Southern Canada, we hear from constituents suffering from Lyme disease all too frequently. We know that Lyme disease is a spreading threat and that one tick bite can lead to potentially devastating illness. It is hard to diagnose. Some conventional testing methods miss the diagnosis. Most Canadians are unaware of the risk of exposure to a tick bite.

Others are aware of the risk, but rely on the conventional wisdom that the presence or absence of the “bull’s eye rash” is a reliable way to know if the bite was dangerous. It is not. Diagnosis is difficult. Many are unaware that the tick bite could lead to permanent disability if not diagnosed correctly and treated promptly. We need to do more, recognizing that the delivery of health programs is a provincial matter.

Bill C-442 calls for the federal minister of Health to convene a conference to gather together “best practices” across the provincial and territorial jurisdictional lines to improve three areas of Lyme disease policy for all of Canada. It calls for better programs for public awareness, improving prevention of Lyme disease. Secondly it will allow the sharing of approaches for improved diagnosis and treatment, and, lastly, it identifies the need for a national strategy to find a cure.

Former Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq, stated the “Government of Canada recognizes that Lyme disease is a serious infectious disease in Canada.” She confirmed that the government “is committed to minimizing the public health risk of this disease....”

Canada is not alone in confronting the growing threat of Lyme disease. In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia made a startling announcement.

It raised its estimate of Lyme disease diagnoses annually from 30,000 to 300,000. Chief of epidemiology and surveillance of the CDC Lyme Disease program, Dr. Paul Mead, stated “we know that routine surveillance only gives us part of the picture, and that the true number of illnesses is much greater…this new preliminary estimate confirms that Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem in the United States, and clearly highlights the urgent need for prevention.”

We cannot assume that the U.S. experience holds true in Canada, but it is certainly the case that I hear from health practitioners across Canada expressing the concern that the number of Lyme patients far exceed the official reports.

It breaks my heart to see families struggle with the costs of going to the U.S. to get treatment for family members with Lyme disease. Even worse is hearing from people suffering from Lyme who cannot afford treatment in the U.S. and are unable to find care in Canada. Many doctors are working hard, as are many provinces. Surely sharing best practices to decrease the extent of Lyme, the reliability of diagnosis and the research work toward improving treatment regimes is in all of our interests.

Originally printed in the Hill Times.