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Series highlights overlooked victims of opioid epidemic — babies

Series highlights overlooked victims of opioid epidemic — babies

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As the nation’s opioid epidemic rages on, President Obama announced earlier this week a new set of new initiatives and funding designed to give more people access to addiction treatment. The move builds on the president’s proposed budget, which requests an additional $1.1 billion for expanding access to medications and other forms of treatment.

There’s been no shortage of reporting on the toll taken by heroin and painkillers in communities across the country. Less noted, however, have been the epidemic’s consequences for babies born to addicted parents. A four-part collaborative series from NPR and Kaiser Health News that aired in the days leading up to his week’s National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta helps change that.

As the series, “Treating the Tiniest Opioid Patients,” explains, a mother who uses opioids during pregnancy make it more likely her baby is born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Such babies experience withdrawals and require much longer hospital stays, with costs averaging nearly $67,000 per stay. As you’d imagine, the number of babies born with the condition has risen dramatically as opioid use has climbed — there’s been a five-fold increase in babies with NAS from 2000 to 2012, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, with more than 21,000 infants a year as of 2012.

Reporter Jeff Cohen of WNPR tells us about a Connecticut hospital that’s shifted its nursing culture and physical layout to make moms feels less alienated by perceived guilt. Providers are urged to take a more empathetic stance towards addicted mothers, making it more likely moms cooperate to ensure the baby gets the full care it needs. The hospital has also moved some babies undergoing treatment from intensive care to quieter, private rooms, where mothers can stay even after they are discharged.

The series also introduces us to 25-year-old Amanda Hensley, who was addicted to Percocet and morphine while pregnant with her daughter. During that pregnancy, several hospitals and clinics turned Hensley away due to her addiction before she found care via the ER in Cleveland’s safety-net hospital. “It really takes a medical team effort to help a pregnant woman and her baby,” health reporter Sarah Jane Tribble says. “The problem I learned while reporting this story is that it’s really difficult for women to find help.”

While babies born with NAS often recover within six to eight weeks, the process can be brutal. Non-stop crying, tremors, fevers and diarrhea are all part of the mix. While morphine and methadone are the two most common drugs prescribed to ease babies’ withdrawals, more research is still needed, as Kristin Gourlay of Rhode Island Public Radio reports:

"As I spoke to people around the country, everyone would have their own approach and a very different way of treating these babies,” says Dr. Jonathan Davis, chief of newborn medicine at Tufts' Medical Center. “And we thought that quite odd."

Davis and a colleague are now conducting a major study of the most effective form of treatment for babies with NAS, as well as the long-term effects, Gourlay reports.

There’s a common thread in these stories, and it has to do with challenging the idea of addiction as a moral failing. Taken as a whole, the series suggests that if the medical community is committed to delivering the best care possible to addicted mothers and their babies, doctors and nurses will need to get past that limiting lens. Addicts are often victims of untreated trauma themselves, and the perception of providers passing judgment only makes it less likely that a baby will get proper care.

As Dr. Stephen Patrick of Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine tells Tribble, “I think it's time for us to reshape how we view addiction in the United States. It is a medical condition — it is not a moral failing.”

[Photo by Beth via Flickr.]


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