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US hospitals grapple with growing number of drug dependent newborns

US hospitals grapple with growing number of drug dependent newborns
Tennessee, the first US state to track the number of infants born addicted to prescription drugs, has reported a surge in their numbers that has medical professionals concerned.

Known medically as “neonatal abstinence syndrome,” babies born with a drug dependency will require small does of an opiate, such as morphine, until they can be weaned off and their withdrawal symptoms are brought under control.

According to an Associated Press report, staff at the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville expect to treat 320 children this year for drug dependence, up from 283 the year prior and 33 in 2008.

Though the US does not officially track the number of infants born with a drug dependency, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association cites over 13,000 infants were born with the affliction across the country in 2009.

Withdrawal symptoms for adult drug addicts appear to be similar to those experienced by infants. Babies born with a dependency can suffer from nausea, vomiting, severe stomach cramps and diarrhea. The newborns may also experience issues eating and sleeping, and can even suffer from seizures.

Shockingly, the AP reports that at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital about half of its neonatal unit’s 49 newborns are being treated for drug addiction. The agitation caused by withdrawal have led medical staff to place mittens on the infants’ hands to prevent them from scratching and rubbing their own faces.

A similar report by the Wall Street Journal in 2012, which focused on Florida hospitals, describes medical professionals slowly coming to grips with an increase in drug dependent newborns.

“The problem that we started having with babies withdrawing from drugs that moms are taking during pregnancy happened very gradually. We’d see a baby a week, then two, then three, then four - to the point that we found 10 per cent of the babies that we had at the hospital were there because they were withdrawing from mom’s drug use,” said Terri Ashmeade, NICU Medical Director for Tampa General Hospital.

The same WSJ report cites that between 2000 and 2009 the number of infants in the US demonstrating symptoms of withdrawal from opioids, including prescription painkillers, has tripled.

At East Tennessee babies experiencing withdrawal are often placed in private, dark rooms with either rocking machines to try and keep them calm, or frequent visits by one of the hospital’s 57 “cuddlers” - volunteers that supplement regular staff by holding babies, and rocking them to try and ease their symptoms.

It is impossible to be unmoved by these infants, said Carla Saunders, the hospital’s neonatal nurse practitioner who spoke with the AP.

"If there is anything that could drive the people in our society to stop turning their heads to adult addiction, it's going to be the babies," says Saunders.

Drug abuse in the state of Tennessee is often ranked among the highest in the US, though as additional reporting already confirms the number of newborns with prescription drug dependencies is hardly confined to that state.

At Florida's Tampa General Hospital, Ashmeade tells the WSJ video reporters of the impact that these babies have made on her staff.

“The nurses have a hard time. These babies require a lot of care, and sometimes, despite our best efforts, there is still a period of time before we can get them comfortable,” says Ashmeade.