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Majority backs funding trials of controversial MS treatment

Paolo Zamboni inspects the brain scan of an MS patient in his office at the University Hospital of Ferrara, Italy, on Nov. 19, 2010.

Alessandro Vincenzi/alessandro vincenzi The Globe and Mail

Stephen Harper's government is out of sync with Canadians when it comes to supporting a controversial new medical procedure for sufferers of multiple sclerosis.

A new Angus Reid online poll, released Thursday, shows that 75 per cent of Canadians want the government to fund clinical trials to study the so-called liberation procedure. The treatment has been criticized by neurologists in the field, but anecdotal testimony from those who have had the procedure has obviously proved compelling.

In fact, asked whether they believed MS sufferers who have undergone the treatment and reported good results or the doctors who say it is "unproven and too risky," 61 per cent of poll respondents believed the MS patients compared to 12 per cent for the doctors.

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Respondents also don't want sufferers to have to flee the country for the procedure. Eighty-two per cent believe the procedure should be available in hospitals for MS sufferers who want it while 8 per cent are opposed and 10 per cent say they don't know.

Additionally, 37 per cent of Canadians have heard of the procedure - a number Angus Reid vice-president of communications Mario Canseco says is significant.

"I think having 37 per cent of respondents say that they have seen, heard or read something about the treatment is a very high number," he told The Globe on Thursday. "This is a relatively new procedure, and Canadians are paying attention to the way this story is developing."

But the truly intriguing issue for him is that "Canadians are siding with the patients who have experienced the treatment and report an improvement - and not the doctors who say the treatment is too risky - by a 5-to-1 margin."

Mr. Canseco says that in terms of policy, the view of most Canadians is that citizens "should not be traveling abroad to have access to a treatment that could plausibly be available here."

"This is the rationale behind the high support for the federal government funding clinical trials. Canadians want to have some sound answers on the actual reach of this procedure, but they also feel that the point of view of MS sufferers should not be dismissed outright," he says.

The so-called liberation therapy treatment is highly contentious as it disputes the long-held view that MS is an autoimmune disease. Rather, an Italian doctor believes MS patients have damaged blood vessels in their necks caused by too much iron.

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The doctor, Paolo Zamboni, has developed a procedure to clear the blockages, which he believes relieves the MS symptoms. The federal government has refused to fund studies, although some provinces are moving toward that with Saskatchewan is leading the way. In October it announced $5-million for clinical trials to study the procedure.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has accepted the view of an expert panel that before any trials there should be more research.

The online Angus Reid poll of 2,011 Canadians was conducted between Dec. 13 and Dec. 15.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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