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N.B. residents suffering from mystery brain disease call for fresh investigations

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Sarah Nesbitt turned 40 on Sunday but says she is not sure if she will be around to celebrate many more birthdays.

Nesbitt, a resident of Moncton, N.B., said she began experiencing symptoms of a neurological disorder of unknown cause in the summer of 2020.

She is part of a group of New Brunswick patients who say they are suffering from a mystery brain illness. But the provincial government maintains that there is no new neurological disorder and that studies have shown that the patients who are sick are likely suffering from known diseases.

On Tuesday, Nesbitt joined a group of patients and their families who have called on the provincial government to investigate the link between their symptoms and environmental toxins -- particularly the popular weed killer glyphosate. The news conference was organized by the Green Party of New Brunswick.

Their call for new investigations came after their doctor, Dr. Alier Marrero, asked federal and provincial health authorities in January to look into the link between their symptoms and the herbicide.

"I had a lot of different symptoms that all piled up to realize, 'OK, this is something going on,"' Nesbitt said. "I went to my doctor in November of 2020. And he couldn't find anything."

A slate of tests later, she said her doctor thought she had multiple sclerosis.

"For almost two years, I thought that's what I had."

Nesbitt was referred to Marrero last year, who tested for and ruled out diseases such as cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, she said. But further tests have shown that she has high levels of glyphosate and other chemicals in her system.

Health Canada said on its website that glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the country and figures prominently in the agricultural industry. Products containing glyphosate are used to control weeds, including toxic plants such as poison ivy.

Marrero said in a letter dated Jan. 30 to Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, and Dr. Yves Leger, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health, that he has been working with about 147 patients experiencing symptoms such as rapidly progressing dementia, muscle spasms, atrophy and other complications.

Marrero said that cases have also been reported in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

"I am particularly concerned about the increase in numbers of young-onset and early-onset neurological syndrome," he said in the letter.

"I now call to your attention one of the major hypotheses extensively discussed during previous meetings during the years with national and international experts, including possible environmental toxins."

Tests from patients in Nova Scotia show high amounts of glyphosate and other compounds from that family, he said.

"On behalf of our patients and families, I request your support to further and detailed testing of patients and environments for these and other toxins."

New Brunswick health authorities concluded in a February 2022 report that "there is no evidence of a cluster with a neurological syndrome of unknown cause."

They said that the cluster of disease had been subject to "many theories" that were based on "speculation, uncorroborated opinions and the absence of a thorough analysis of epidemiological and clinical information."

The province said a review of 48 cases of patients suffering from a neurological syndrome of unknown cause found that the patients didn't have symptoms in common or a shared illness.

On Tuesday, New Brunswick Health Minister Bruce Fitch told reporters he was briefed about Marrero's letter.

"Public health is drafting a response," he said. "If they require more information, they will go back to the doctor in question and get that information and then proceed from there."

Fitch said he recognizes that it's difficult for families and patients when they don't get the answers they want.

Nesbitt said she is heartbroken that she had to give up her cabin and her dream of living in a rural area because she suffers from seizures, tremors and moments where she doesn't know where she is, "almost like dementia."

"The sad part is I'm going to rapidly keep on declining."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2023.

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