Epidemic of Drug Addicted Babies: March 19, 2013

When specialists from Golisano Children’s Hospital noticed a large number of drug-addicted newborns, they started an internal probe.

“What we’re looking for is evidence of significant opiate exposure in utero. What I mean by that is the mother who is a heroine addict or known drug abuser, using opiates or the mother who has a definitive history of a medical requirement for opiates that is used for the majority of the pregnancy and certainly into the last trimester,” says Dr. William Liu, neonatalogist with Lee Memorial Health System.

The results surprised them. Within Lee Memorial Health System, the number of cases jumped 800 percent between 2005 and 2011. It’s called ‘neonatal abstinence syndrome’ because babies are born withdrawing from drugs they were hooked on getting through their umbilical cord.

“The types of symptoms that we see are increased jitteriness, tremulousness, inability to affectively suck, evidence of seizure activity.  GI symptoms such as diarrhea, loose stools, vomiting, inability to gain weight well. The child may have excessive sweating, the infant may have increased irritability where they cause excoriation or breaking down of the skin of the elbows- the face- the knees, the infant may also develop respiratory symptoms,” says Dr. Liu.

When they started tallying figures here, no one knew where it would take them. But it grew into a state task force- looking at Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and ways to treat it.

The task force recently released its findings calling it epidemic:  there was a three-fold increase in NAS since 2007. With more than 1,500 (1,563) newborns diagnosed in 2011. Because hospitals weren’t required to report cases, there was likely an undercount. The task force also recommended creation of a plan to detox babies before they go home.

“The medication that is most uniformly used in the United States is morphine sulfate or methadone. In our institution we use a consistent standardized concentration morphine sulfate. And we administer it by a specific medical protocol,” says Dr. Liu.

Recognizing their cries for help and treating them immediately is helping babies break the cycle of addiction.