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article imageDrug-addicted newborns becoming a national epidemic

By Karen Graham     Jun 21, 2014 in Health
Medical personnel will tell you there is nothing to prepare you for the sound of a newborn crying, literally shrieking in a high, gut-wrenching pitch because they have been cut-off from the opiates their mothers ingested during pregnancy.
These babies shudder, convulsing uncontrollably, projectile vomit, and are often prone to a skin-burning diarrhea. It is a violent and dangerous way to begin life. They cannot be consoled in any way. They are the innocent victims of a group of symptoms labeled Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).
Researchers, doctors and politicians have been debating this overwhelming and ultimately expensive problem for some time. It is not an easy one. NAS occurs when mothers ingest addictive prescription or illicit drugs during pregnancy. Babies of mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy may also have similar symptoms.
It has been known for some time now that the New England area of the United States has seen a sharp increase in the number of people addicted to opiates. But the consequences to future generations is of a big concern because of the numbers of women giving birth to babies that are addicted to the drugs the mother was ingesting.
Massachusetts, in particular has seen an alarming increase in the number of babies born with NAS. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, Maine Governor Paul LePage, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick have been trying to address their state's growing heroin and opiates problems the past several months.
Mass. Gov. Patrick went so far as to declare a state of emergency on the issue. The number of babies born with addiction to opiates in Massachusetts is three times the national average. The numbers are far higher than figures gathered by state officials, according to a new federal study. The state counted 128 babies born with NAS in 2013.
The federal study found 1,300 babies, or close to 17.5 out of every 1,000 births resulted in a baby born with NAS in Massachusetts in 2013. This number is three times the national average of five babies out of 1,000 born with opiates in their system yearly. The state's figures were based on cases reported to the Department of Children and Families, where the federal figures was based on reports from 42 Massachusetts hospitals.
In Maine, the number of babies born with NAS increased from 160 in 2005, to over 900 babies born with NAS in 2013. This is approximately seven percent of all the births in the state last year. Vermont's state health department reported a tenfold increase in the number of babies born addicted to opiates since 2002. In New Hampshire, there has been a 600 percent increase in babies born with NAS. In 2002, there were 20 babies diagnosed with NAS, and in 2009, the number jumped to 120.
Elisha Wachman, a neonatologist at Boston Medical Center specializes in treating addicted babies and is one of a number of physicians involved in an effort by Massachusetts hospitals to determine the prevalence of the problem and find a solution to better caring for the infants. While Governor Patrick has called for increased funding to narcotics units with the police force, as well as the availability of a narcotic overdose drug, naloxone, it is going to be up to the state's politicians and departments to see that these necessary remedies get allocated.
But it leaves everyone with the major issue of treating these babies and ultimately the mothers. One problem is the socio-economic status of many of the mothers. About 75 percent of the babies with NAS belong to mothers on state assistance. Another bigger challenge is determining the type of opiate doctors will have to deal with. While many women are honest with their doctors, telling them the medications they are on, with many more women, shame and blame keep them from being honest, much to the detriment of the child they are carrying.
Treatment of babies suffering from NAS is time-consuming and expensive. The average hospital stay is 16 days, though this can vary, depending on the degree of drug dependence. Withdrawal is the ultimate goal, of course, and medications like methadone are used most frequently, although in some severe cases, liquid morphine has been used.
These babies require lots of cuddling, human skin contact, and a quiet peaceful atmosphere to come down from their addiction. The whole time, they are monitored for weight gain and any neurological conditions. The one bright spot in all this is that experts say there doesn't seem to be any long term affects to the children. This is something that will have to be studied in the long term, though.
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