A researcher at Toronto's Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences is warning young women in Ontario about the risks of long-term use of prescription painkillers, especially during pregnancy.​

Dr. David Juurlink says the number of newborns in the province experiencing opiate withdrawal has increased 15-fold in the last 20 years.

"It's really quite striking. I think we knew we'd find a rise. I don't think we appreciated at the outset that the rise would be as great as it was."

Juurlink said that's a problem, since babies born to mothers who misuse opioid drugs are more likely to be premature, and have lower birth weights.

“We're flying blind. We have no assurance that the benefit for the prescription is going to outweigh the risks to the patient and, in some cases, the child,” he said.

“They are not as safe as we were led to believe, and they are not as effective.”

Better access to methadone programs

Juurlink's research is part of a report published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"Doctors, for years, were given the message that it was safe and effective to use these drugs long-term in people who were young, who were old and that these drugs were better and safer than the other drugs we have for chronic pain,” Juurlink continued.

“We now know for most patients that isn't actually true. But we seem to have fallen into this status quo where we just resort to using opioids very, very liberally."

He said he'd like to see pregnant women in northwestern Ontario and across the province get better access to methadone programs.

Mothers who switched to methadone before delivery tended to have healthier babies than those who remained on opioids, he noted

“That would, I think, be the most important intervention, if it was made as easy as possible for everybody in Ontario regardless of geography and regardless of whether you're on a reserve or not or in a city or a rural area to have access to care for opiod use disorders.”

Juurlink said his study is a descriptive one “for the whole province, so it includes rural, suburban and urban areas in one main analysis."