Less than a month old, Savannah Dannelley scrunches her tiny face into a scowl as a nurse gently squirts a dose of methadone into her mouth.
The infant is going through drug withdrawal and is being treated with the same narcotic prescribed for her mother to fight addiction to powerful prescription painkillers.
New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. says the number of U.S. babies born with signs of opiate drug withdrawal has tripled in a decade because of a surge in pregnant women’s use of legal and illegal narcotics, including Vicodin, OxyContin and heroin, researchers say.
The number of newborns with withdrawal symptoms increased from a little more than 1 per 1,000 babies sent home from the hospital in 2000 to more than 3 per 1,000 in 2009, the study found. More than 13,000 U.S. infants were affected in 2009, the researchers estimated.
The newborns include babies like Savannah, whose mother stopped abusing painkillers and switched to prescription methadone early in pregnancy, and those whose mothers are still abusing legal or illegal drugs.
Weaning infants from these drugs can take weeks or months and often requires a lengthy stay in intensive care units. Hospital charges for treating these newborns soared from $190 million to $720 million between 2000 and 2009, the study found.
“It’s really hard, every day, emotionally and physically,” said Aileen Dannelley, 25. “It’s really hard when your daughter is born addicted.”
Doctors say newborns aren’t really addicted, but their bodies are dependent on methadone or other opiates because of their mothers’ use during pregnancy. Small methadone doses to wean them off these drugs is safer than cutting them off altogether, which can cause dangerous seizures and even death, said Dr. Mark Brown, chief of pediatrics at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
Newborn drug withdrawal is rampant in Maine, Florida, West Virginia, parts of the Midwest and other sections of the country.
Dr. Stephen Patrick, the lead author of the study and a newborn specialist at the University of Michigan health system in Ann Arbor, called the problem a “public health epidemic” that demands attention from policymakers, as well as from researchers to clarify what long-term problems these infants may face.
University of Maine scientist Marie Hayes said her research suggests some affected infants suffer developmental delays in early childhood, but whether those problems persist is uncertain.
Before you think it’s the 21st century version of the “crack baby” epidemic of the 1980s, you should know that the study includes women who weren’t abusing drugs during pregnancy, but were taking prescribed painkillers for legitimate reasons. Some pregnant women were “doing the right thing” by taking methadone to fight their addiction.
Doctors pushing powerful painkillers “like candy” contribute to the problem, said Arturo Valdez, who runs the Chicago substance abuse program that Aileen Dannelley attends. Patients at his West Side clinic include men and women who are prescribed opiate painkillers for legitimate reasons, such as car accident injuries, and find themselves addicted when the prescriptions runs out. Some turn to street drugs, which can be cheaper and easier to obtain, Valdez said.
In some states, mothers of newborns with drug withdrawal are arrested and jailed, but Valdez said addiction is a brain disease that should be treated like other illnesses, not stigmatized.