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Saskatchewan Health Minister defends trials for MS therapy

Ballooning health-care costs and questions about the sustainability of the system will top the formal agenda as Canada's health ministers gather on Monday for their annual meeting in St. John's. But what's not on the agenda is Saskatchewan's plan to start clinical trials on a controversial new treatment for multiple sclerosis. But Saskatchewan Health Minister Don McMorris tells The Globe and Mail's Karen Howlett that he will have plenty of opportunity to talk about why his province is considering clinical trial proposals for the so-called liberation therapy to treat MS. The liberation theory, pioneered by an Italian doctor, is an experimental method of opening veins in the neck and spinal cord to combat the symptoms of the nerve-wasting disease. It's a controversial treatment, however, with some health experts saying its efficacy is thinly documented.

Will you talk about Saskatchewan's plans to start the clinical trials even though Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and the health-research community insist the new treatment is too risky?

If the opportunity presents itself, I have no problem explaining Saskatchewan's position and the concerns that it's too dangerous when there are clinical trials being conducted just across the border in Buffalo and in many countries. Those jurisdictions have already grappled with the issue of liability and danger, which are offset by the possibility of being able to prove that such a treatment works.

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How have people in Saskatchewan, including those afflicted with MS, reacted to Premier Brad Wall's support for liberation therapy?

It has been amazing how many people suffering from MS or their family members have been in touch with the government, including people I've known for a very long time and didn't know they had MS. This has kind of brought it out of the shadow. They want to talk about it.

Do you think these individuals now have a feeling of hope?

People who have been overseas and had the treatment, I know it's anecdotal evidence, but the improvement they've found in their lives certainly gives us all hope. We can't fund and won't fund in Saskatchewan or in any other province, I suspect, on hope alone. But for a person who has been suffering with MS for 10 years, and has been relatively symptom free [after the treatment]it brings a greater hope that perhaps it may be the start, if not just to relieving the symptoms, but helping to cure some of the problems.

The premiers of Canada's three westernmost provinces often speak with one voice on economic and trade issues. Why do they work so well together?

Not to be too political, but for many years the previous New Democratic government in Saskatchewan didn't see a lot of usefulness in working with Alberta, but we've found Alberta very receptive. Some of the biggest advances have been made over the past two years, whether it's health care, whether it's transportation.

Do you think British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan can set an example on how other provinces can work more collaboratively as they seek to lower the cost of prescription drugs by creating a national purchasing agency?

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I really do see it carrying across provincial lines beyond just the western-most provinces. No more do we live within a shell in our province. It's not like it was 20 or 30 years ago. We need to get with the times and work together on some of these issues.

What are you hoping to achieve at the meeting?

I don't want to downplay the formal agenda. It's very important to things we're talking about. But I will say that it's easier to phone up a minister from another province once you've had lunch with them and talked to them informally. It just builds a comfort level. You know them more than a voice or a face.

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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