Spike in newborn babies suffering drug withdrawal might come to Lowcountry, doctors say

astice@islandpacket.comMay 8, 2012 

A new national study indicates the number of newborns suffering from opiate withdrawal -- a result of pregnant mothers taking prescription medication -- has tripled in the past decade, and local doctors say the spike may soon be seen in the Lowcountry.

The study, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that pregnant women are susceptible to a different kind of addiction that is becoming more common," said Dr. Brad Buckler, neonatologist at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah. The number of new mothers who tested positive for prescription drugs such as OxyContin increased fivefold between 2000 and 2009, researchers found.

"It's not the street drugs so much anymore," said Buckler, who works for the Pediatrix Medical Group of Georgia on contract at the Savannah hospital. "It's prescription opiates they may get for back pain or some other real problem, but then they become addicted to it."

Buckler said that in 2011 he cared for about 30 newborns suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome, or withdrawal. That is far less than the national average but indicates a developing problem, he said.

Dr. James Simmons of All Children's Pediatrics in Port Royal said he expectsthe trend now apparent in problematic areas noted in the study -- such as Florida, Maine and parts of the Midwest -- to arrive in rural areas within several years.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon that we're just starting to see, and I suspect we'll start seeing it more," he said. "The problem is that we're not asking the right questions of pregnant women. We ask if they are using marijuana or illicit drugs, but we don't particularly ask about prescription drugs. As we start seeing this more, we will have to look harder at what we ask."

Beaufort Memorial Hospital and at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah are among the hospitals that have adopted a scoring system for its nurseries that allows doctors to identify the signs in newborns: fussiness, irritability, trouble sleeping and eating, tremors, even seizures.

Babies are first treated with "environmental" measures, such as minimal light and noise, to calm them, Buckler said. If their symptoms persists, they may be put on a regimen of methadone for several weeks -- the same opiate used to treat addiction in adults.

"Babies that are born to a mother who is addicted get cut off from the drug source," Buckler said. "It's just like stopping cold turkey."

It's not clear if there are developmental problems associated with opiate addition at birth. Some studies suggest they have developmental problems but not necessarily long-term health effects.

However, the cost of caring for babies in withdrawal is well-documented. Hospital charges for treating these newborns soared from $190 million to $720 million between 2000 and 2009, the study found.

New guidelines from the American Association of Pediatrics that require hospitalization of newborns throughout methadone treatment -- typically four to six weeks -- increase those costs, Buckler said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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