Medical Recommendations

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

On Monday, February 27, 2012, the Minister of Health sent a letter to all parliamentarians explaining the government’s position on funding clinical trials for the treatment of chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency. In that letter, the minister justified the government’s position by stating that their approach was endorsed by the Canadian Medical Association and other Canadian organizations, as well as by other international medical bodies and scientific panels. Minister Aglukkaq also said in her statement that we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to the opinions of international experts. She said:

However difficult the decision is, as parliamentarians, we have an ethical obligation to put our patients’ safety first. Our evidence-based health care system requires that procedures performed be sound and shown to work. We have built this system on exacting, internationally recognized ethical and scientific standards. Circumventing them through legislation is undermining the independence of our scientific process and the safety of our fellow Canadians.

I believe that is a quote of convenience.

There is a double standard on this. On another issue, this government ignores the science offered by the same Canadian Medical Association and respected international organizations.

As the leader knows, the CMA passed a resolution demanding “a ban on the sale and export of chrysotile asbestos.” On the international front, the World Health Organization estimates that more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos related illnesses. We have seen some of those horrible stories in this country, in a recent CBC documentary.

The position of the CMA and the WHO is based on the ethical and scientific standards the Minister of Health so proudly refers to in her letter. Yet this government continues to blindly support the asbestoses industry.

Is that not undermining the independence of the scientific process? Why the double standard?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, with regard to multiple sclerosis, we all recognize the difficulties and the heartbreak faced by thousands of patients and their families across the country.

This is an issue that Minister Aglukkaq has discussed with the provinces and territorial health ministers, the last time being late last year, in December, I believe.

On November 25, Minister Aglukkaq announced that the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will be accepting research proposals for phase 1-phase 2 clinical trials. We are also supporting the development of an ongoing, national MS monitoring system that will provide patients and health care providers with a better understanding of the disease and its treatments.

We are working with the provinces and territories, as I mentioned, to ensure that all Canadians living with this disease receive appropriate care. Our priority, in this regard, is the health and safety of Canadians. Who better than the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to be spearheading this? Obviously, those of us who have had the privilege of listening to some of the people from CIHI are very cognizant of the hard work they are doing and the due diligence that they are going through with regard to multiple sclerosis. With their good work, it is hoped that a cure or a treatment can be found soon to alleviate this terrible condition.

With regard to asbestos — and there is scientific research to back this up — if the product is properly packaged, handled and shipped, it can be used perfectly safely. I know the various stories and have seen some of them, but the asbestos industry in Canada is involved in shipping a product that is safe for use, provided that people follow the proper instructions.

Senator Munson: The leader did not quite answer the question. The question had to do with the double standard. The government will accept recommendations by respected organizations and will voice them. The health minister will talk about them. She will talk, in tones that are positive, about the CMA and the World Health Organization. The government accepts them and puts those opinions out there, but not when it comes to dealing with another issue that is quite serious. I disagree with the safety of chrysotile asbestos. This government has no problem accepting the views of the CMA and the WHO when it suits their purposes, but, when it does not, it is as if these groups disappear.

At times, the government values these expert opinions and at other times the government dismisses them. How can the Leader of the Government in the Senate justify this duplicity?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, organizations have different views on various subjects. Many of us know the people involved in the Canadian Medical Association. The CMA is an organization that provides background research studies. Obviously, with regard to multiple sclerosis, they have been very helpful. We do not discount, for a moment, their views and concerns about chrysotile asbestos, but this product has been safely shipped and properly controlled by the government for the past 30 years. Governments of many stripes have been in power when this product has been shipped. The product is safe, provided that it is properly handled and controlled. Of course, this is mostly a product that is exported. Scientific reviews confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely, under controlled circumstances. That is a scientific view. We all know and seek examples, in Canada, of asbestos being removed from buildings, and, of course, asbestos has not been used in Canada since the early-to mid-1980s.

We do have scientific advice on this product. We appreciate the views of the Canadian Medical Association. We are not ignoring their views. We are not picking and choosing, as the honourable senator suggests, but many organizations freely give advice to governments. Governments obviously take into account what they have to say. We are well aware of the concerns about asbestos, but there is scientific evidence that this product is safe, if properly handled and shipped.

Senator Munson: Honourable senators, this government is exporting death.

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh.

Senator Munson: They can say all they want about shipping, handling charges, whatever it is, all wrapped up nice and pretty, but this is an export of a material that is killing people. Not only do the documentaries show that but so do those who have seen what has happened in India. Once it gets to different countries around the world, there is very little protection. We see men and women pulling this stuff out and trying to put it back together again. What is the by-product? The by-product is that people are dying.

We can say all we want about asbestos not being used or handled here, but I would like to say that to some of the families who have handled asbestos in the past.

This is a question with a statement. I just cannot buy the honourable leader’s arguments at all.

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, Senator Munson needs to cut the dramatics.

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh.

Senator LeBreton: He said that our government is exporting death. If that is the case, then his government exported death for 24 years.

I realize that there is some attention paid to this product. I have acknowledged that if the product is packaged and handled safely, it is deemed by scientists to be safe. I would hope that the people who are buying this product from Canada are in fact following the instructions for its proper use.

The honourable senator cited some examples in India. It is the responsibility of the governments in the countries where the authorities are purchasing this product from Canada to ensure that, when the product arrives on their shores, their people are properly trained to handle it and that they follow the proper instructions. That would certainly be the hope of the Government of Canada.