More must be done to help drug-addicted babies

Published 8:44 am Monday, December 18, 2017

As the opioid epidemic sweeps across Tennessee and America, an ever-greater number of drug-dependent newborns are straining hospital neonatal units and draining precious medical resources. The problem has grown more quickly than realized and shows no signs of abating.
This week, local lawmakers and District Attorney Generals Tony Clark and Barry Staubus visited the Elizabethton TLC Community Center to hear about issues with drug abuse and pregnancy encountered by the center’s director, Angie Odom.
Odom discussed her experiences with the problem, and like other places, the center has seen a significant increase in the number of pregnant women who are battling addiction and the impacts it has on their lives and the lives of their newborns.
In 2014, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to approve a law to punish women for delivering drug-addicted babies. The measure allowed prosecutors to charge a mother for delivering a drug-addicted baby. Efforts to make the law permanent in Tennessee failed.
Odom is hoping the legislature will again adopt the law or something similar to hold pregnant women accountable for their drug abuse and the harm it is doing to their babies.
It’s no myth. Tennessee’s drug problems are well-documented. And the damage is long lasting. In East Tennessee the number of infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome has skyrocketed, with some counties reporting rates eight times the national average. The problem is so bad that eight of the region’s district attorneys general are suing opioid manufacturers on behalf of local babies born with NAS in 24 counties. The suits are two of the latest to be filed in a mounting nationwide effort to drag drug-makers and distributors into courtrooms.
The Niswonger Children’s Hospital at the Johnson City Medical Center this year opened a new ward just to care for children needing intensive treatment for NAS. Since 2009, hospital staff have treated over 1,800 babies with NAS, and in the past 12 months, 351 infants with NAS have come through the NICU at Niswonger Children’s Hospital.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome increases the risks of complications such as low birth weight and respiratory issues. It normally causes babies affected to be hospitalized 5 to 60 days longer than healthy babies.
In both situations, there are the silent victims to the needless suffering — the loved ones and children of those addicted.
Babies born to those addicted to drugs face many hurdles to overcome the physical and emotional syndrome attached to them.
Babies exposed to drugs must be treated differently, with morphine used to help calm them and lessen their suffering. They also must be kept in a more quiet atmosphere and require more hands-on attention.
Mothers are usually encouraged to be part of the babies’ treatment plans, but in all cases involving NAS, Child Protective Services is notified so the agency can ensure the child’s safety.
All that comes with a cost — estimated to be $1.5 billion on the national scale in 2012. But that is strictly the final costs. The emotional and physical damage that are done have far more long-lasting effects.
Every young person who is convicted of a drug crime and sentenced to prison deals with that for the rest of their lives.
And those are the lucky ones. The sentence for those who overdose and can’t be revived is much longer.
That’s why the war on drugs must continue on all fronts: Law enforcement, treatment, and improved economic opportunity to help restore hope. And, it’s why the war on the opioid epidemic must be won. Too many children’s futures depend on it. And we can’t let them down.

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