When a pregnant woman is addicted to heroin or another opiate, her unborn child has no choice – he or she is also addicted.
Heroin-addicted babies are easy to identify. They enter the world shaking and screaming, plagued by symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting.
“When they are born, because they’re no longer being exposed to an opiate, they’re going to go through withdrawal. That is what we deal with,” explains Dr. Sean Loudin, medical director of the neonatal therapeutic unit at a hospital in Huntington, West Virginia.
This condition, referred to as “neonatal abstinence syndrome,” is becoming more and more common. As reported by CNN, the rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome is five times higher than it was ten years ago.
This information comes from a recent study that focused on neonatal and obstetric deliveries between the years 2004 and 2013. The report found that addiction rates tend to be higher in rural areas, where the number of babies suffering withdrawal increased from 12.9% in 2004 to 21.2% in 2013.
Huntington, which CNN refers to as “the epicenter of America’s heroin addiction,” is a perfect example. But rates are also increasing in urban areas, and the number of babies suffering withdrawal increased from 1.4 to 4.8 per 1,000 hospital births between 2004 and 2013.
“The most alarming thing to me was the growing disparity that we are seeing between rural and urban areas,” says Dr. Nicole Villapiano, the study’s lead researcher.
Opiate withdrawal is tough enough to deal with as an adult, but can induce seizures and affect normal growth when suffered by a newborn. On top of the medical risks, caring for these babies puts a significant strain on already tight budgets. Villapiano and her colleagues insist that the results of their study highlight “the urgent need of policymakers to appropriate funding for clinicians and programs that could improve access to opioid prevention and treatment services for rural women and children.”
Congress sought to address America’s opiate problem earlier this year with the the Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act of 2016, a law that ultimately fails to solve the problem in that it does not discuss how to stop the “Mexican drug trafficking organizations” responsible for bringing these drugs into the US.
For Dr. Loudin, the problem is personal. Nearly 1 in every 10 children born in his facility begin life with an opiate addiction. “What this trend tells us is the country faces an addiction crisis. Many Americans face hopelessness, despair, economic hardship, and very little appropriate coping mechanisms to deal with that.”
“I’ve talked with parents who literally have to use heroin because they can’t get anything else,” says Loudin. “And that is a scary thing to think about – that just to avoid withdrawal and getting sick, they go out and buy heroin and inject it into their bodies just to function through the day.”
Heroin is not the solution to a problem, but a temporary high that threatens to ruin one’s life. The risks of addiction are often downplayed, and today’s young adults simply don’t know what they’re getting into.
Columbia University Psychology Professor Carl Hart even went so far so to admit and defend his use of opiates (read more here) during a public speech. Hart’s despicable behavior will no doubt encourage his students to experiment with dangerous drugs.
Dr. Loudin believes that we must put the focus on helping adults deal with their problems and overcome addiction. “If we can help the adults…that will eventually trickle down and reduce the number of babies born exposed to drugs.”