New Brunswick Green leader seeks answers from minister on mysterious brain disease

New Brunswick Legislature

New Brunswick’s Green leader says the public should have been notified sooner about a growing cluster of residents with a neurological syndrome of unknown origin.

David Coon says health officials have known about cases in the province for a number of years but only confirmed them publicly last week.

“Not only has it been ongoing for some years, but it has been increasing for some years,” Coon said in an interview Tuesday. “When you go from 11 cases in 2019 to 24 in 2020, to six in less than the first three months of 2021, people should have been told a long time ago.”

He said opposition leaders who are part of a cabinet committee haven’t been given a briefing on the issue and have only been told there have been 35 cases in the Acadian Peninsula area in the northeast of the province and eight cases in the Moncton area.

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Chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell said last week that symptoms of the condition are similar to those of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare degenerative brain disorder, but it is most likely a new disease.

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According to a memo sent by the deputy chief medical officer of health to medical professional associations on March 5, the first known case dates to 2015 but was identified later. Five people with the unknown syndrome have died.

Symptoms include dementia, muscle spasms, atrophy and a host of other complications.

Bertrand Mayor Yvon Godin, who is also the chairman of the Forum of Acadian Peninsula Mayors, said residents in the Acadian Peninsula are worried and want answers from health officials.

“People need to know good information,” Godin said in an interview Tuesday.

“There are about 48,000 people in the Acadian Peninsula but we don’t know if it is concentrated in one or more places,” he said.

Godin said people want to know if they should stop eating deer and moose meat in case that’s the cause. He said the government should provide all the information it has.

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Click to play video: 'New Brunswick official comments on neurological disease detected in the province'
New Brunswick official comments on neurological disease detected in the province

In the provincial legislature Tuesday, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said it’s a serious issue and she understands the anxiety.

“Public health is not only aware of this, they have gone the extra step of engaging experts from across the country to aid in understanding what this is,” she told the legislature. “They sent out a memo to doctors to ask doctors to be aware of it, to understand that if they have patients with conditions that have not been diagnosed and are still a mystery, perhaps they need this help.”

Coon said the public has a right to be given more information.

“People have a right to know that public health is all over this, what they’re doing, what they’ve ruled out to date, what they’re looking at, and who’s involved from across the country in helping us solve the mystery,” Coon said.

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Shephard said health officials are working quickly and following proper protocols.

“Ruling something out, ruling something in may help the leader of the Green party but we don’t need distractions here,” she said. “We need public health to double down and work on this condition and to find out what they’re dealing with. They are doing that.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Mar. 23, 2021.

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