SickKids doctor honoured for work with women

Dr. Gideon Koren

TORONTO — Dr. Gideon Koren, founder of Motherisk, a program for pregnant women run out of the Hospital for Sick Children, has been awarded a top achievement award in health research.

The award is sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Koren, 65, a native of Israel and a graduate of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, established Motherisk in 1985, three years after he arrived at the hospital to study the effects of medicines of unborn children.

He is a pediatrician, pharmacologist and toxicologist at the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario, as well as a professor of medicine at both U of T and Western.

In accepting the award, Koren said that every year, scores of new medications enter the market, but few of them have safety data concerning fetal exposure during pregnancy.

“With half of all pregnancies unplanned, and with large numbers of women who have conditions requiring treatment during pregnancy, there is a serious knowledge gap as to which medications are safe for the baby and which should be avoided.”

Motherisk was established, he said, to acknowledge this gap.

Its mandate is to counsel women and health professionals, conduct large-scale laboratory and clinical research, and translate this knowledge into counselling, Koren said.

“Motherisk is at the forefront of knowledge translation, empowering the continuity between the laboratory, the patient and the population,” he said.

“By telephone, fax, e-mail or in person, the team – currently 75 members – counsels over 200 women and health professionals daily, directly affecting the care of thousands of Canadian women and their infants each year, in addition to numerous international cases.”

It is the only line in the world, he said, for women who want to know how to deal with morning sickness safely.

He said that the Brewers Association of Canada supports a Motherisk hotline for women who abuse drugs and alcohol, “because they want to help women avoid drinking or taking drugs while pregnant.

“A big step came when Shoppers Drug Mart sponsored a 1-800 number, so calls can come from across the country and internationally.”

Many women are afraid to take necessary medication during pregnancy, he said, “but not taking it can be more dangerous. Every week, we see women who are empowered to take their medication safely.

“They are [often given bad advice] about their medications. It is a national sport to frighten pregnant women. We let them know the risks of untreated conditions on both them and their baby,” he said.

If Motherisk staff determine that a woman is addicted to drugs or alcohol, he said, they refer her to therapy. “There is a lot we can do for them. We can put their mind at ease, or we can warn them that they may need help.”

Koren said he is gratified to be doing this work. “I get a lot of letters from women whose pregnancies went well because of our help. Their physicians are also grateful. It is a very good feeling to know that we can change the way women and babies are treated.”