Dr. Vanessa Poliquin
Nearly a decade ago, Dr. Vanessa Poliquin was an on-call resident in obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) and was caring for a patient whose waters had broken extremely prematurely. As Dr. Poliquin and her mentor discussed ways to prolong the patient's labour and protect her against infection, they reflected on how little information there was to guide treatment of infections in pregnant women.
"We realized it was just one of so many gaps in this area," says Dr. Poliquin. "Talking about it with other colleagues, we were shocked at how little training we had received on the intersection of pregnancy and infectious disease."
Determined to close that knowledge gap, Dr. Poliquin reached out to the handful of reproductive infectious disease experts practising in Canada and worked with them to establish a distributed training program based at the University of Manitoba, where she was completing her residency. She effectively created her own fellowship there, in the new subspecialty of reproductive infectious diseases. Since then, Dr. Poliquin has become one of Canada's leading experts in the field.
Vaccinating for two
Dr. Poliquin's work also led her to study the immunization of pregnant women in Manitoba. She found that before 2014, immunization was almost never part of routine prenatal care.
"Flu and pertussis (whooping cough) can be extremely dangerous to babies," she says. "But because whooping cough is not considered a significant threat to adults, it didn't occur to most people to vaccinate pregnant women. And until the H1N1 influenza pandemic, the severity of influenza among pregnant women was often overlooked."
Through speaking engagements, publication of national guidelines and educational material and other advocacy efforts, Dr. Poliquin brought greater awareness of the issue to physicians across the country. She says that today nearly all obstetricians understand the value of these vaccines, and as a result, vaccination rates are much higher.
"It's important to understand that the risk factors for a lot of these diseases are often associated with other social determinants of health, like socioeconomic status," she says. "We need to look beyond the clinic if we're really going to solve these problems."
Leading in a crisis
As one of only a few specialists in the field, Dr. Poliquin is often the first one colleagues turn to for answers or advice on reproductive infectious diseases, and this was highlighted during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Poliquin has been educating prenatal care providers on the topic of obstetric and gynecologic management during the pandemic. She continues to lead regional and national working groups to ensure prenatal care providers have the most evidence-informed guidance at their disposal as the situation around COVID-19 evolves.
"During my fellowship, I never dreamed of having to confront such a challenge as this, but I am grateful to have sufficient training to help navigate the deluge of information and to support my colleagues and patients through this crisis."
Dr. Vanessa Poliquin is receiving the CMA Award for Young Leaders (Early Career) in recognition of her exemplary dedication, commitment and leadership in clinical, educational and community service.