Across the Canadian province of New Brunswick, the number of people afflicted by a mysterious, potentially deadly brain ailment keeps growing.
Neurological symptoms like hallucinations, muscle wasting, vision problems, memory loss and abnormal movements were first seen in 2015 in a small cluster of patients, eventually growing to 48 cases.
But some health experts and local residents say the number of people with the condition is much higher — and may exceed 200.
In addition, an unusual number of those cases are in young people, who do not typically show dementia-like symptoms or signs of other neurological problems.
“I am particularly concerned about the increase in numbers of young-onset and early-onset neurological syndrome,” neurologist Dr. Alier Marrero wrote in a Jan. 30, 2023, letter to New Brunswick’s chief medical officer and the chief federal public health officer.
“Over the past year, I have been following 147 cases, between the ages of 17 and 80 years old. Out of those, 57 are early-onset cases and 41 are young-onset cases,” the letter from Marrero said, according to the Toronto Star.
As of 2021, there were nine deaths attributed to the mysterious illness, the Daily Mail reported.
But a government investigation, which was considering environmental toxins as a cause, abruptly shut down in 2021.
The government agency Public Health New Brunswick declared in its February 2022 final report that there was, in fact, “no evidence of a cluster of neurological syndrome of unknown cause,” according to the podcast Canadaland.
“People who were part of this cluster displayed symptoms that varied significantly from case to case, and there was no evidence of a shared common illness or of a syndrome of unknown cause,” the report authors wrote, adding that the organization was “therefore concluding its investigation” into the matter.
But Marrero and patient advocates aren’t giving up, and many suspect the disorder may be linked to the use of pesticides in the primarily rural province.
Glyphosate — an herbicide used in agriculture, the forestry industry and household weedkillers — has come under particular focus.
In Marrero’s January 2023 letter, he warned that recent laboratory tests on patients showed “clear signs of exposure” to glyphosate, as well as other compounds linked to herbicides, according to the Guardian.
Marrero also noted that the presence of glyphosate could be linked to blooms of blue-green algae in bodies of water.
Glyphosate contains phosphorous that can stimulate blooms of blue-green algae, a type of cyanobacteria that can sicken people and kill animals, including pets.
Advocates insist the true number of cases is at least 200, and some of the patients have tested positive for multiple environmental toxins, including glyphosate, at levels up to 40 times higher than the average limit, the Toronto Star reported.
Some patient advocates wonder if pressure from industry or other groups might be behind a political decision to close the case.
But they’re not giving up: A dedicated group of New Brunswick patients and their families are urging the federal and provincial government to conduct a full-scale investigation into the disorder.
“We are formally demanding that federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos unmuzzle Canadian scientists and direct the Public Health Agency of Canada to uphold the Canada Health Act and reinstate federal experts into the investigation,” Steve Ellis, one of the advocates, told the Toronto Star.
Ellis’s father, Roger Ellis, was one of the first 48 cases of the neurological condition.
“For almost a year, we were led to believe that a thorough and unbiased public health investigation was in progress,” said Stacie Cormier, another patient advocate. “We are here to tell you that that did not happen.”
Cormier’s stepdaughter, Gabrielle Cormier, had to drop out of college and give up her love of figure skating at age 20 when she became ill with memory loss, vision problems and an inability to stand up for more than a few minutes.
In 2021, she made a final visit to an ice rink.
“The reason we went to the rink again was because I was afraid that I was going to die and I wanted to be on the ice one last time,” she told CTV News.