The number of babies born with a drug addiction in Florida has risen in the last decade.
More than 2,400 Florida newborns showed signs of narcotic drug withdrawal in 2015, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration — nearly 600 more than in the previous year.
This condition, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), occurs in newborns exposed to drugs in the womb. The substances can pass through the placenta and affect the prenatal child. The baby then becomes addicted.
“I suspect there are probably many babies that have the diagnosis and go through withdrawal at home, and nobody knows about it,” Dr. William Liu, neonatal intensive care unit medical director of The Children’s Hospital in Fort Myers, told The News-Press.
Taking opioids, benzodiazepines and antidepressants during pregnancy can lead to NAS. Illicit drugs, such as cocaine, and alcohol may worsen symptoms.
The number of NAS cases in Florida has nearly doubled since 2010.
Ninety-seven percent of newborns with NAS at three Florida hospitals were admitted to an intensive care unit for serious medical complications over a two-year period, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their hospital stay lasted an average of 26 days.
Symptoms of NAS
Symptoms of NAS depend on the type of drug the mother used during pregnancy, how much of the drug she took, the duration of use and whether it was a premature birth.
If the mother used opioids within a week before delivery, the baby can be dependent on the drug at birth, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Babies may have long-term problems related to NAS.
Babies born with the condition often experience:
- Blotchy skin coloring
- Excessive high-pitched crying
- Poor feeding
- Slow weight gain
Doctors administer small amounts of morphine and phenobarbital to wean newborns off the drug. This process can take several weeks.
The condition can also cause small head circumference, developmental problems and sudden infant death syndrome.
Florida Aims to Combat NAS
Drug use during pregnancy isn’t uncommon. More than 5 percent of pregnant women aged 15–44 were illicit drug users in 2013, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Nearly 15 percent of pregnant women between 15 and 17 used drugs.
Florida officials recognize this growing issue. In 2013, the Statewide Taskforce on Prescription Drug Abuse and Newborns launched Born Drug-Free Florida, an initiative to raise awareness about prescription drug abuse during pregnancy.
The state-sponsored resource also helps women with a substance use disorder locate nearby rehab facilities. As of November 2013, the program has helped at least 60 pregnant women begin treatment.
The task force released a report in 2014 that outlined prevention techniques. The key takeaways included:
- Prevention programs, grounded in science, should spread awareness of the dangers of prescription drug abuse during pregnancy.
- Prevention messages should encourage women to seek prenatal care and substance abuse treatment, if needed.
- Physicians and nurses well-trained in drug addiction play a key role in preventing and reducing NAS.
- Substance abuse screening should not be mandatory and be done with the consent of the pregnant woman.
Liu believes education is a useful tool in reducing NAS across the country.
“NAS is a symptom of a larger underlying societal issue: a growing rate of drug dependency in our country,” Liu said. “I suspect the growing NAS numbers will be impacted less by improving awareness, and more by the underlying drivers for drug dependency.”