House Call with Carol Hughes

MP for Algoma/Manitoulin

Time for Canada to take Lyme disease seriously

The government rolled out its draft framework for an action plan on Lyme disease in early February and already activists are calling it inadequate. An online petition launched one week later has been signed by tens of thousands of Canadians critical of the plan, claiming that it takes no real action, lacks funding, and fails to protect anyone from Lyme. While most people might never have to worry about the disease, those who have been infected can struggle for decades to receive treatment and understanding.

With blacklegged ticks (deer ticks) expanding their Canadian range every year, it is increasingly important that Canada takes Lyme seriously. The disease is transferred to humans by bite and infected persons can experience fever, headache, fatigue, and may develop a bulls-eye rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and even the nervous system. If caught in the early stages, most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics.

The difficulty in Canada seems to focus mainly on those who have been infected for a  long period of time. This is where the vacuum exists and families are forced to pay out of pocket for treatment which often requires travel to the United States where Lyme specialists are allowed to practice. The costs can be exorbitant and Lyme patients can spend tens of thousands of dollars on care.

According to critics, the lack of resources in the draft framework only ensures more Canadians will be forced to tackle Lyme on their own, meaning only those who can afford treatment will receive it. That is hardly fair and it is hoped that the strong feedback during the draft stage will see resources added to the action plan.

Critics suggest that, in its current form, the action plan merely reminds people how to protect themselves in order to prevent infection. This includes the use of insect repellent, prompt removal of ticks, and wearing preventative clothing (closed toed shoes, tucking pants into socks and shirts into pants). Light coloured clothing makes it easier to spot ticks and learning to recognize the areas they prefer makes it easier to avoid exposure. Whether this amounts to an action plan or not, it is important for people who could be exposed to ticks to adopt protocols that avoid the risk of infection and then practice them with regularity.

New Democrats have been stating for years that action on this disease is long overdue. It is one of the fastest growing infectious diseases in North America and infected individuals deserve an early diagnosis along with established treatment guidelines. We pushed hard for the federal government to establish a national strategy to diagnose, treat and enact better surveillance for Lyme disease. New Democrats supported Bill C-442 in the previous parliament that mandated the action plan on Lyme disease and will push to make sure it gets the resources needed to meet its goals.

The draft framework is  open for comment until March 7 but changes can always be made, especially if Canadians show the government they want Lyme treated seriously. From the looks of the signature count on the petition, it would appear they do.