Doctors in Thunder Bay are launching a new program to help pregnant women addicted to opiates.

The Substance Use in Pregnancy Program will provide both prenatal care and methadone treatment in a primary care clinic on a confidential basis.

The medical director of the program, Dr. Cheryl Everall, said women often want to overcome their addiction when they become pregnant — but stigma keeps them from seeking help.   

"We are aiming at providing a safe, stigma-free environment to bring those women forth who are ashamed and afraid of their addiction, so we're able to provide them that comprehensive care."

Patients can enrol in the program starting Tuesday, May 6.

Cheryl Everall

Dr. Cheryl Everall says opiate addiction is a serious health issue in northwestern Ontario, and it often carries stigma, especially for pregnant women. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

The program is focusing especially on First Nations, as opiate addiction is plaguing First Nation communities in northern Ontario.

“It is time local front-line physicians work side-by-side with First Nations leadership to quantify and define health care needs associated with opioid addiction in pregnancy so that sustainable programs and policies can be developed,” stated a program press release issued Wednesday.

Women losing their babies to foster care

Gull Bay First Nation Chief Wilfred King is already working with Everall on the program. He agreed leaders need to work with the medical community, as well as provincial and federal governments, to deal with the opiate addiction problem.

"We estimate ... anywhere from 75-80 per cent of our people have either used or abused opiates in our community,” he said.

King said he has seen the devastating consequences, including addicted mothers losing their babies to foster care.

Wilfred King

Chief Wilfred King of Gull Bay First Nation is helping to launch the new prenatal program, which he says is badly needed for First Nations communities. Non-judgmental staff will provide confidential, safe methadone treatment along with full prenatal care. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"We have known cases where children were apprehended the minute they were born."

But pregnancy is the perfect time for women to make positive changes in their lives, Everall said.

“Many women are motivated, but embarrassed.”

Everall's clinic aims to reduce the stigma and give women battling addiction the support they need. 

Non-judgmental staff will provide confidential, safe methadone treatment, along with prenatal care.

Everall's program is the first of its kind in Thunder Bay. Another program providing prenatal care alongside addiction treatment has been running for about five years at Meno Ya Win Health Centre in Sioux Lookout. Doctors there use morphine, rather than methadone, to manage opiate addiction in pregnant women, in addition to providing counselling.   

Any pregnant woman addicted to opiates who wants treatment and prenatal care can go to the Northwood Park Health Centre (located in Janzen's Pharmacy building) at 504 N. Edward Street in Thunder Bay to complete a confidential intake package. Phone 807-286-1819 for more information.

The program accepts women at any stage of pregnancy and follows them until six weeks postpartum.  Infants enrolled in the program are followed until one year of age.