05/16/2013 12:00 EDT | Updated 07/16/2013 05:12 EDT

New Brunswick continues liberation fund for MS patients despite waning interest

FREDERICTON - A fund set up to help multiple sclerosis patients in New Brunswick pay for so-called liberation therapy will continue, Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said Thursday, despite waning interest and questions over the efficacy of the unproven treatment.

Higgs said the government decided to continue offering public money to people seeking the treatment outside Canada to fulfil a campaign promise, even though a number of studies have cast doubt about the procedure.

"We want the medical professionals to help advise on that and to help us go forward on that," Higgs said.

The government has budgeted $75,000 for the fund this year, on top of the $400,000 it set aside in the first two years of the program. Applicants can get $2,500 each if a community group raises matching funds for the procedure, which can cost more than $10,000.

But interest in the fund has fallen short of expectations. Only $210,000 has been spent so far, Higgs said, with 84 people having received the money to pay for the treatment.

Jessesar Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the MS Society's Atlantic division, said while the organization supports anyone's decision to seek the treatment, it may be wiser to spend the money on other initiatives.

"We are looking at the implementation of the drug insurance program that we're expecting to come in the next year or so," Mitchell said in an interview. "Maybe it would be better spent in that way."

But she said she applauds the government's efforts to support people living with MS.

While some people who have undergone the procedure say it has improved their lives, there have been numerous studies that say the treatment is not effective.

The University of Buffalo recently reported that a study of 30 MS patients showed the treatment had no benefit on numerous measures of symptoms, disease progression and quality of life.

Through MRI scans, researchers also showed some patients had increased brain lesions, one of the hallmarks of the progressive neurological disease, after undergoing the vein-opening procedure.

While other provinces are studying clinical trials, New Brunswick is the only province that provides funds to help MS patients get the treatment.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba committed funding for clinical trials, while Newfoundland and Labrador commissioned a study of patients who sought the treatment that found no measurable benefits from it.