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Heroin Epidemic Spreads to PA’s Most Vulnerable Population: Newborns
Pennsylvania is known as one of the hotbeds of America’s opioid problem, deemed by the state’s drug and alcohol secretary as “the worst overdose crisis in the history of humanity.” And with rates of heroin use among Pennsylvanian women more than doubling between 2002 and 2014, it’s not surprising that the terrors of the opioid tragedy have trickled down to the state’s most vulnerable population — newborn babies.
New Report Shows Dramatic Increase in Addicted PA Newborns
A recent report by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) shows a 250% increase between 2000 and 2015 in the number of newborns requiring specialized postnatal care due to drug abuse by the mother. Opioid addiction was the culprit in 82% of these hospital stays. In 2015 alone, addiction-related neonatal hospital stays came with a price tag of an extra $20 million and an additional 28,000 hospital days. Investigators determined these numbers by analyzing the records of PA hospitals over the 15-year time period.
What Heroin Withdrawal Does to Babies
Heroin withdrawal is one of the most unpleasant drug withdrawals to experience and can be extremely painful. While adults have the benefit of at least intellectually understanding what they are going through and why, newborns don’t have the advanced cognitive development needed to rationalize their withdrawal symptoms and foresee an end to them.
Babies whose mothers abused drugs while they were in the womb are more likely to be born prematurely and to have lower birth weights. They are also likely to have neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) when they are born. These are withdrawal symptoms resulting from the absence of drugs that their systems have become dependent on. Neonatal abstinence syndrome in newborns whose mothers abused heroin and other opioids may include:
- Ceaseless crying
- Poor feeding
- Difficulty breathing /respiratory distress
- Bleeding of the brain
Opiate withdrawal symptoms usually begin about 24 to 48 hours after birth and can linger for up to six months.
Treating Opioid-Addicted Babies
The course of treatment for babies in withdrawal from heroin or other opioids includes a carefully managed drug regime and close medical monitoring, usually in a neonatal intensive care unit. Medication therapy may include opiates like morphine and methadone. Given to the baby in decreasing doses over a period of time helps them gradually decrease dependence on heroin and can lessen the intensity of withdrawal symptoms like seizures. Newborns may also require intravenous fluids to counter dehydration and poor nutrition that result from poor feeding, diarrhea and vomiting. Babies born addicted to drugs may require hospitalization stays of around 30 days, depending on the severity of their condition.
What Is PA Doing to Combat the Opioid Problem?
Stopping opioid addiction in newborns starts with preventive treatment for the mothers who will carry them. Pennsylvania’s government officials, healthcare system and law enforcement agencies are scrambling to keep up with the demands of the opioid crisis in PA that has swept both metropolitan and rural areas. Gov. Tom Wolf has stated that combating the heroin epidemic is the top priority of his administration.
Some current measures being taken in the battle against PA opioid abuse include:
- 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 has 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.
Sadly, even with these efforts in place the 2015 Pennsylvania DEA Intelligence Report on drug-related overdose deaths shows that heroin or other opioids were present in about 81% of drug-related deaths in 2015.