Doctors are calling for the establishment of a new national program to provide pregnant and breastfeeding women with reliable drug safety information, after a hotline program in Ontario that provided such medical advice was shut down earlier this year.

The closure of the Hospital for Sick Children’s Motherisk program, which was first set up in 1985, has left a “void” that needs to be filled, Dr. Jonathan Zipursky, a clinical pharmacologist at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, told CTV News Channel.

Motherisk operated two hotlines that provided new and expectant mothers with information about the risks of pharmaceuticals, recreational drugs and medical treatments while pregnant or breastfeeding. It closed last month, citing a damaged reputation and funding loss tied to “allegations of research misconduct” linked to Dr. Gideon Koren, a former director.

An independent review of a lab run by Koren in 2015 found that drug and alcohol tests done at his lab were “unreliable,” compromising the fairness of more than 1,000 child protection and criminal investigations. Although the hotlines were separate from Koren’s lab, hospital officials said the Motherisk name was no longer one the private sector seemed willing to support in any capacity.

Zipursky said that Motherisk received 70,000 calls per year at its peak and held in-person consultations, too.

“The loss of Motherisk has exposed a major public health and research void that is neither quickly nor easily reconciled,” he and two other doctors wrote in an editorial published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday.

At least 20 per cent of pregnant women have chronic illnesses and many may develop pregnancy-related conditions, the editorial said. More than 90 per cent of all pregnant women will use at least one prescription or over-the-counter drug while pregnant.

The lack of a Motherisk-type program is “irresponsible and dangerous,” Zipursky wrote in the editorial. Its closure could force some mothers to use drugs that cause preventable harm to their children or choose to unnecessarily avoid drugs out of concern that they will harm the baby. Either decision could put the health of the mom and baby in jeopardy.

Zipursky told CTV News Channel that Motherisk proved useful, for instance, when it provided pregnant or nursing mothers with information about the safety of anti-depressants.

“A lot of obstetricians and family physicians used to use the Motherisk program as a resource to inform drug safety questions that they themselves may have had,” he said.

Any replacement for Motherisk Zipursky added, should “have the necessary oversights,” potentially by affiliating it with an established research institute or through support from the federal government. It should also involve cross-country collaboration among researchers, obstetricians, gynecologists, midwives and family doctors.