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DLSPH home to First Exposure, new resource for pregnant people and their care providers

December 20/2023

Digital information hub, First Exposure, provides crucial information about medication and environmental exposures to expectant and new parents so they can make informed choices. 

By Elaine Smith 

Ontario’s pregnant people, their families and healthcare providers need look no further than First Exposure for evidence-based information about the safety of medications, plant and environmental substances and other exposures during pregnancy and lactation.

First Exposure, a bilingual digital information hub and research network based at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH), officially launched on Nov. 16, 2023, funded by a $5 million gift from the Vohra Miller Foundation. First Exposure serves as a valuable resource with information on the safety of medication and substance exposures for pregnant people, allowing them to make informed choices within their own unique and culturally safe contexts. 

The University of Toronto’s renowned expertise in public health, its work with underrepresented communities and its adherence to ethical standards makes it a perfect home for First Exposure, which has a focus on underserved and remote communities. The project is led by DLSPH’s Dean Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown and Acting Dean France Gagnon. The program administration includes Executive Director Wendy Katherine, Medical Content Director Dr. Cynthia Maxwell, and Scientific Director Dr. Jennifer Blake.

“In establishing the new program, First Exposure is committed to transparency, patient privacy, and the strictest research and ethics protocols to build a needed public resource that people can trust,” says DLSPH Dean Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown in First Exposure’s media release. He further stated, “In establishing the new program, First Exposure is committed to transparency, patient privacy, and the strictest research and ethics protocols to build a needed public resource that people can trust,” he says. “As the website grows, it will become a rich source of data for clinicians and researchers from the university and beyond, who will partner with First Exposure to build knowledge and improve population health.”

First Exposure serves as a replacement for the province’s now-defunct Motherisk program. It is wholly funded by the Vohra Miller Foundation, a family foundation established by Sabina Vohra Miller, a first-generation Canadian and public health PhD student, and her husband, Craig Miller. They hope the government eventually realizes the value of the information being provided and will support it so that the resource can reach all Canadians.

“First Exposure embodies everything our Foundation is focused on – making sustainable, systemic and impactful changes to healthcare to ensure equitable and accessible health care and scientific information for all Canadians,” said Sabina Vohra Miller in the media release. “This has been a passion project for me, and is deeply meaningful on a personal level.”

The new digital information hub addresses questions from families who are curious about the impact on pregnancy or lactation of flu shots, prescribed medications, herbal remedies, the use of alcohol, cannabis or non-prescription drugs and the chemicals they may encounter in the workplace.

The website and its database will eventually “grow to contain [information on] up to 500 prescription and over-the-counter medications,” according to First Exposure’s media release. First Exposure will draw upon the knowledge generated by experts in a wide variety of medical and scientific fields for this information. Eventually, First Exposure plans to provide “additional services such as a call centre, a clinical program to help patients review their medication and pregnancy health records with a physician specialist, as well as a future program to offer real-time advice and… virtual care.”

First Exposure will develop as an academic research network to support trainees in maternal health, reproductive health and early-life exposure research and provide support to researchers undertaking important new studies and projects regarding the effects of various exposures during pregnancy and lactation. The First Exposure team and DLSPH will also build partnerships and collaborate with other researchers and partners, not only across U of T, but throughout the Toronto Academic Health Science Network, with Black and Indigenous health organizations and in industry, hospitals and government. First Exposure’s larger goal is to ensure that communities have support in raising healthy, thriving children from the start.