Pennsylvania’s Heroin Epidemic Hits Its Most Vulnerable - Newborns
Babies whose mothers abused heroin during pregnancy are subject to some serious medical conditions
July 11, 2017
(press release: summitbehavioralhealth) // New Jersey // Maria Ulmer MA, LMFT, CAADC | Chief Clinical Officer
It’s not news that Pennsylvania is in the throes of an opioid epidemic that is claiming thousands of lives each year and ever-increasing as time passes. It is known as one of the hotbeds of the epidemic and is deemed by the state’s drug and alcohol secretary as “the worst overdose crisis in the history of humanity.” The opioid drug problem in Pennsylvania affects everyone, including women. In fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that heroin use among the women in Pennsylvania has more than doubled since 2002. With statistics like those, it isn’t hard to believe that the horror of opioid addiction has made its way to the state’s most vulnerable residents – newborn infants.
In a report by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4), it is shown that there is a 250% increase in the last 15 years of the number of newborns who require specialized care due to the drug use of the mother. Addiction to opiates caused more than 80% of those cases. This is an extremely costly problem. In the year 2015 alone, addiction-related postnatal hospital stays accounted for a whopping $20 million and an additional 28,000 days in the hospital.
However costly though, the effects of heroin and other opioid drugs on newborns is far more terrible. Withdrawal from any substance can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but heroin withdrawal is one of the worst experiences an addict can face. Adults who go through heroin withdrawal are able to understand what is happening and know that it is to their benefit to be going through it and that it will end. Newborn babies certainly are not able to do that.
Babies whose mothers abused heroin during pregnancy are subject to some serious medical conditions and withdrawal symptoms. Some of those include:
Miscarriage and Stillbirth – The death of an unborn baby before the 24th week of pregnancy is considered a miscarriage, and after the 24th week is considered a stillbirth. Both types of fatalities can be caused by heroin use during pregnancy.
Placental Abruption – This occurs when the placenta separates from the uterine wall before the mother goes into labor. It is commonly caused by smoking, drinking alcohol, or abusing drugs during pregnancy. Placental abruption is not usually fatal, but it can cause developmental problems in the child.
Low Birth Weight – A baby that weighs less than five and a half pounds at birth is considered to have a low birth weight. Some low birth weight babies have serious complications like respiratory problems, heart problems, digestive tract issues, vision problems, and brain bleeds. Additionally, low birth weight can lead to future problems for the child including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and obesity.
Brain Damage – Babies with mothers who abused heroin during pregnancy may be born with brain damage that is irreparable.
Developmental Problems – Heroin use during pregnancy can affect an unborn baby’s central nervous system, which can lead to developmental delays and poor academic performance later in life.
Premature Birth – If a baby is born before the 37th week of pregnancy, it is considered a premature birth. Heroin addiction can cause premature birth and lead to respiratory issues, trouble maintaining a stable body temperature, and trouble eating and drinking. Sometimes the baby’s internal organs are underdeveloped and he or she will require ongoing medical care for an extended period of time.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome – Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) refers to several complications that affect babies born to mothers who used opioids while pregnant. The drugs are passed to the unborn baby through the placenta and the baby becomes dependent on them. When the baby no longer receives the drugs after birth, it will suffer withdrawal symptoms that include:
Diarrhea and vomiting
Babies that are born with NAS are often premature, with a low birth weight and smaller than normal body size. They must be detoxed from the opioids gradually and using medication. Withdrawal symptoms typically begin 24 to 48 hours after birth and can last for up to six months or more.
Microcephaly – This refers to a small head circumference, and it usually means that the baby’s brain is not developing correctly.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) – SIDS is the unexpected and sudden death of a child that is less than a year old. While autopsies do not show an explainable cause of death, babies who are born to mothers who abused drugs or alcohol during pregnancy have a higher rate of death due to SIDS than those born to women who did not use drugs or alcohol during pregnancy.
Babies who are born addicted to heroin require a carefully managed medical care regimen and monitoring, typically in a neonatal intensive care unit. They may have to be given small doses of opioid medication and be tapered off to prevent the withdrawal symptoms from becoming too risky. They may require a hospital stay of a month or more.
Ending heroin and another opioid addiction in newborns has to start with the prevention of addiction in the mothers who carry them. Pennsylvania’s law enforcement, healthcare, and government officials are trying to keep up with the opioid crisis that is taking over the state. Some of the actions that have been taken in accordance with the battle against opioid abuse in Pennsylvania are:
Pennsylvania’s 2016-2017 budget earmarks $15 million for the development of PA treatment centers and improvement of treatment options.
In July 2016, the Pennsylvania boards of pharmacy, medicine, and dentistry approved all or parts of new opioid prescribing guidelines that seek to curb some of the overprescribing of painkillers that have helped fuel the opioid problem.
In October 2015, Pennsylvania Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine signed a standing order for the opioid-blocking drug naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose. The standing order means that anyone can purchase naloxone at pharmacies without a prescription.
PA’s Act 139 or “David’s Law” permits firefighters, EMS staff, and law enforcement agents to administer naloxone to people overdosing on opioids. It also prevents anyone who reports or responds to an opioid overdose from being prosecuted by the law (also known as the Good Samaritan law).
With funding from insurance companies and grant money, Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs has been able to supply over 300 PA police departments with naloxone. Surveys have shown that police are the first responder on the scene of an overdose about 70% of the time.
Unfortunately, even with the above efforts taking place, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has reported that there were over 4,600 Pennsylvanians who died from drug overdoses in 2016, an increase of 37%. The full report, “Analysis of Drug-Related Overdose Deaths in Pennsylvania, 2016,” will be released at the end of June.
Summit Wants to Stop addiction in Pregnant Mothers
Are you or someone you know using during a pregnancy? The statistics are alarming for not only the mother, but for her unborn child. Babies whose mothers abuse heroin or any other drug or alcohol during pregnancy are subject to some serious medical conditions and withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal from any substance can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but heroin withdrawal is one of the worst experiences an addict can face. Babies who are born addicted suffer with more severity and more times than not left with a lifetime of illness.
Do not allow another day to pass without reaching out for help. Not only does your life or the life of someone you care about depend on it, but the life of the unborn child. Compassionate help is just one phone call away! Call our behavioral health professionals today at 1-844-643-3869 to speak to a substance abuse expert about you or a loved one’s treatment options.