No matter where you are in the U.S., it would be nearly impossible for you not to have heard about the growing number of Americans using, abusing and becoming addicted to heroin and prescription opioids. From teenagers to soccer moms, CEOs and senior citizens, the opioid epidemic has become rampant in our country and represents one of our largest national health crises.
The unfortunate fallout of the American opioid epidemic has led to the victimization of the most vulnerable and innocent among us: newborn babies. A recent study suggested that the proportion of U.S. opioid-addicted babies born suffering from withdrawal syndrome following exposure to heroin or prescription opiates in utero has spiked. Researchers determined this by focusing on the rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a condition that causes withdrawal symptoms in infants who become addicted to the drugs their mothers used during pregnancy.
Across the U.S., the rate of NAS involving mothers’ use of heroin and prescription opioids jumped from 2.8 cases for every 1,000 births in 2009 to 7.3 cases for every 1,000 births in 2013. While the rate may not seem that high, what’s alarming is how it nearly tripled in a span of four years. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the findings, reporting that the rates of NAS had increased from 1.5 cases for every 1,000 births in 1999 to six cases per 1,000 in 2013. With the current state of the opioid epidemic, this is a number that is sadly likely to only increase.
The picture is much bleaker in some states. Kentucky’s rate, for example, climbed from five cases for every 1,000 births in 2008 to 21.2 cases for every 1,000 births in 2014. In West Virginia, the current rate is 33.4 cases for every 1,000 births.
“We know that certain states are harder hit by the opioid/heroin abuse epidemic, with about 10 states contributing to half of all neonatal abstinence syndrome cases,” said lead study author, Dr. Joshua Brown in an email to Fox News. “These states are often more impoverished areas of the U.S. such as Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia.”
The Helplessness of Addicted Babies in the Opioid Epidemic
It’s awful when a person decides to use and/or abuse heroin and prescription opioids and develops an addiction as a result. However, it’s the worst kind of tragedy when a newborn who had no say at all about what was going into his or her body has to struggle with addiction. This is the harsh reality of the nation’s current opioid epidemic. These children may face physical and cognitive defects throughout their lives through no fault of their own.
Every 19 minutes, a baby is born dependent on opioids. The number has been climbing since 2003, when Congress passed the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act. During that year, 5,000 drug-dependent babies were born. By 2013, that number had grown to more than 27,000.
When healthcare providers discover cases of NAS, the federal law states that they must alert child protection authorities in addition to providing treatment for the newborns. However, state laws in at least 36 states have policies or laws that do not require doctors to report each case of NAS.
While more research is needed to determine the exact long- and short-term effects of opioid abuse on fetuses, studies have linked it to a number of negative outcomes
- Low birth weight
- Poor feeding
- Small head circumference
- Decreased motor development
- Diminished cognitive skills
- Severe diarrhea
- Continuous crying
- Sneezing fits
Infants with NAS are often born into misery that can last as long as six months. Fortunately, many of these negative outcomes begin to disappear as the newborn grows into a toddler. The long-term effects are more difficult to isolate due to other variables, including comorbid substance exposure, environmental factors, socioeconomic status and poor prenatal care.,
Danger Does Not End with NAS
While the symptoms of NAS eventually go away, children with moms who abuse drugs are likely to deal with many other problems. One of these involves being brought home by a mother who is ill-equipped to handle her own issues, let alone care for a newborn. Every year, dozens of babies are killed by opioid addicted mothers in preventable deaths. Many of these include suffocation, poisoning, drowning and child abuse. 
When a pregnant mother comes into a hospital ready to give birth and it is found that she is addicted to drugs, it would seem that the right thing to do is report this to the proper authorities. However, some state policies make it so reporting a mother in this situation could put her in legal jeopardy. For nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals in these states, the question they must ask themselves is if it’s better to report the mother to authorities, potentially separating her from her baby, or if it’s better to trust that the mother will improve her life.
“If you’re in a state where a report is made and social services are great, they’re going to help this mom and get home healthcare, then that’s great,” said Renate Savich, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on neonatal-perinatal medicine in the Reuters article. “But if it’s a punitive kind of state, what’s the point? So I think some just say, ‘Let’s don’t.’”
Many have strongly championed the idea of punishing mothers who abuse drugs while pregnant, but many women’s rights groups have said that punitive policies unfairly punish mothers compared to fathers. According to Reuters, at least 479 new and expecting mothers have been prosecuted since 2006 for drug abuse in Alabama. Many who are opposed to this strategy feel that these women should be getting treatment, not punishment.
Keep Your Life and Home Drug Free
Whether you’re a new mother, an expecting mom or planning to have a baby in the future, drug abuse and addiction are obstacles you need to remove from your life. However, doing so without the compassion and expertise of a licensed rehabilitation center is very difficult and likely to end in failure. Unity Behavioral Health is here to help.
If you’re ready to turn your life around and start winning your battle against drug addiction, we strongly urge you to contact us to begin your journey to recovery. A healthier life for yourself and your family begins with just one phone call. Don’t delay!