Federal government spends $4M to fight Lyme disease

The federal government is spending $4 million to aid research into Lyme disease. Health Minister Jane Philpott unveiled a federal framework to establish a Lyme disease research network this morning.

New framework aims to improve diagnosis and treatment of tick-related disease

Minister of Health Jane Philpott announced a new federal framework and $4 million in research funds to tackle Lyme disease. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal government is spending $4 million to aid research into Lyme disease.

This morning Health Minister Jane Philpott unveiled the government's plan to establish a Lyme disease research network designed to improve diagnosis and treatment.

The government also released a framework for fighting the disease, focused on three areas:

  • Establishing a national medical surveillance program to use data collected by the Public Health Agency of Canada to track incidence rates and the economic costs of Lyme disease.
  • Creating and distributing standardized educational materials for public health care providers to increase national awareness to improve prevention, identification, treatment and management.
  • Establishing guidelines for prevention, identification, treatment and management with a framework for sharing best practices throughout Canada.

The infectious disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, and transmitted through the bite of select types of infected ticks.

Improving detection, treatment

Philpott said the strategy was developed after consultation with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, and will help create more effective detection and treatment.

"There's much more work to do on educating health care professionals, educating Canadians in general to make sure we serve people properly and they get the proper care," she said.

This is the two-year life cycle of ticks. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who called for action through a private member's bill five years ago, said it is critical to raise awareness about a disease that's on the upswing. She said the new framework makes significant improvements on the draft one, particularly in the area of educating doctors and health-care professionals.

MPs on the Commons health committee will hold two days of hearings on Lyme disease in the coming weeks.

"This is a movement forward, not the end of a story, but an ongoing effort to ensure that no Canadian ever has to go to the U.S. to get treatment for this disease within Canada," May said.

Theresa Tam, the interim chief public health officer, said the tick population is expanding due to warmer weather, and called it an "emerging" health issue requiring more vigilance due to climate change.

"If a certain geographic area gets warmer than usual, it creates better conditions for the tick population which may carry Lyme to establish themselves," she said.

'Important juncture'

In a statement with the release of the framework, Tam said Canada is at an "important juncture" for tackling Lyme disease. 

"As we move forward collectively, it is critical that we come together with an evidence-based approach, and to address knowledge gaps through further research," she said in a statement. 

"The Public Health Agency of Canada will work with public health, health care, patient groups, and other interested parties as we move forward together on the three pillars of the framework."

Toronto resident Shari Allen, however, who has battled Lyme disease for four years, said there wasn't enough input from patients. She called the framework a "huge disappointment" and said $4 million isn't enough for the necessary research on better blood testing and doctor education. 

Lost chance to lead

"Canada had a chance to show itself as a leader and instead, chose to follow the pack by condoning outdated Lyme guidelines instead of recognizing newer, more effective science-based best practices," she told CBC in an email.

Allen suffers from chronic back and joint pain, fatigue, severe migraines, memory loss and vision problems. She was forced to travel to the U.S. for a diagnosis at her own expense.

"We're living in the dark ages where Lyme disease is concerned, and there's no comfort for sufferers when you come to the realization that the government isn't doing enough with this framework," she said.

 Lyme disease in humans was designated as a nationally notifiable disease in 2009 — identified as a priority for monitoring and control efforts by the federal, provincial and territorial governments.

Health authorities have found an increase in cases of Lyme disease and blacklegged ticks. A tick bite can leave a bull's-eye-shaped rash on the skin. (CBC)