As a growing number of adults suffer from opioid abuse, medical professionals are looking out for more Georgia babies who inherit an addiction at birth.
What Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has called the “opioid addiction epidemic” is the abuse of drugs in a potent family that includes prescriptions such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, plus street drugs like heroin.
Dr. Mitch Rodriguez and his team care for some of the most fragile babies in Georgia, including some who are born addicted to drugs. He’s director of the neonatal intensive care unit at The Medical Center, Navicent Health.
“When this opioid starts to drop in their system, they become very hyperactive, they have sniffles, they have diarrhea. They have respiratory problems, low sugars, (they’re) very, very irritable, hard to manage,” Rodriguez said. Babies can recover, but treatment is very intensive and can take weeks.
National data suggest the number of drug-dependent newborns is on the increase, especially in rural areas.
Last year, Georgia started requiring doctors to report diagnoses of what’s technically called “neonatal abstinence syndrome.” That definition covers babies who were exposed to opioids or other drugs in the womb, alone or in combination.
“Opioids dominate about twice as much more than any other substance we’ve seen so far,” said Dr. Lara Jacobson, director of health promotion at the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Georgia started tracking cases so that they’ll have fuller, timelier details about the syndrome, giving them a good idea of where to target interventions.
But drawing on federal data, the state has already detected a rise: 180 cases of it in Georgia in 2010 versus 416 cases in 2014. Some places have it much worse. Kentucky found 1,060 cases in 2014, among a population much smaller than Georgia’s.
And the cost of treatment tops $63,500 per baby in Georgia, according to state Department of Public Health figures that were based on 2014 cases.
There’s some indication that Middle Georgia doesn’t have it as bad as other places. At least not yet.
“We’ve seen a rise, but I will tell you … that although the rise has occurred, … I consider us to be somewhat fortunate as we’re not seeing what most other places are seeing as of yet,” said Rodriguez.
Babies end up in places such as Rodriguez’s department for a number of reasons. Sometimes a mother is taking a legal prescription. Sometimes it’s use of black market painkillers or street drugs.
The Substance Abuse Research Alliance — a group of Georgia researchers — recommends several policies. One is screening all pregnant women for opioid abuse. Another is publicity: education for the public and for physicians.
Close neonatal attention could help pregnant women give birth to a healthy baby.
But addiction, fear of the law or shame keep some women from being frank with doctors before or after birth, said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who chaired a state Senate study committee on opioid abuse. Indeed, hospitals must call law enforcement if they have reason to believe a baby would be going to an unsafe home.
“Part of the problem with addicted people is they’re not seeking care. They’re already doing damage to their body,” said Unterman. She said if she had a magic wand to write and fund policies, she would improve prenatal care and awareness of how important it is to be healthy while pregnant.
“It’s great to go out and buy a bassinet and have a beautiful room, but it’s more important to take care of a baby before it’s born and after it’s born,” said Unterman.
Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee