One North Carolina county is seeing a surge of newborn addicts in their Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Sadly, the heartbreaking trend falls right in step with the epidemic of opioid addiction sweeping the nation.
The root of the problem
Not too long ago, heroin was thought to be a problem of the past. It seemed that by the early 2000s heroin had seen its heyday in popular culture and was no longer a mainstream recreational drug.
But a cultural shift was on the horizon.
Highly potent, widely available prescription painkillers hit the market in a big way. While many doctors wrote (and still write) legitimate prescriptions to help their patients manage severe or chronic pain, others were thinly disguised – if disguised at all – drug dealers. One Alabama doctor, for example, wrote an estimated 14,000 prescriptions for controlled substances in 2012. After being investigated, he was videotaped issuing prescriptions without even conducting exams. (He surrendered his medical license in 2013.)
For most, the biggest problem with these painkillers is that users eventually run out of their prescription. Once this happens, the addiction has often already been ignited. This leaves users heading to the street to find their opioids. Once there, the cost of pills is tremendous. A single tablet can fetch upwards of $100 in some markets. So, needing a fix for the addiction, users move to a similar, yet far cheaper alternative: heroin.
Prescription painkillers are very much the gateway to heroin. To give you an idea of just how much, consider these statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In 2013, 681,000 people reported using heroin within the last year. In 2003, that number was 314,000.
Back in North Carolina
Back in North Carolina, Dr. Robert Digiuseppe, Neonatologist at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, acknowledged medical professionals’ culpability in the addiction crisis.
“For a while we lost control of it.” Digiuseppe said. “We were prescribing too many pain medications and getting people hooked.”
And now, a new line of addicts are hooked, right in his hospital. Speaking with a local news organization this past November, Dr. Digiuseppe estimated that New Hanover Regional treats about 85 to 90 addicted babies annually, with about 15% winding up in NICU. This number has more than doubled since 2009, when Digiuseppe says they treated about 35 babies a year.
Unlike Tennessee’s recent legislation, which allows for prosecution of mothers who use illegal narcotics while pregnant, North Carolina does not have laws surrounding the births of addicted babies.
North Carolina Assistant District Attorney Lance Oehrlein explained the rationale to news channel WECT in Wilmington. “A lot of states are gun-shy about [such a law] because they don’t want to prevent women from accessing prenatal care,” Oehrlein said.
Proper prenatal care can make all the difference
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, regular prenatal visits can reduce the risk of pregnancy complications, infant complications and sickness, and even infant death. Because all of these risks are heightened with drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy, it is particularly important for addicted mothers to seek prenatal care as soon as possible.
Currently, Tennessee in the only state that prosecutes women for abusing drugs during pregnancy. And to Oehrlein’s point, this could be a good thing. As the medical community has continually echoed, if pregnant women fear being judged – or worse, arrested – chances are they won’t seek the critical care they need.
At New Hanover Regional, employees are working with social workers and rehabilitation centers to reduce the number of addicted babies born each year, proactively improving medical care and educational resources for pregnant women.
Getting help as soon as possible
Because pregnancy involves the life of another person, it is as important as ever to seek professional help.
Pregnant or not, if you are struggling with addiction, or if you have loved one who is, The Watershed can help. Give us a call. We’re open 24/7: 1-800-861-1768.Tags: addicted babies, faces of heroin