As opioid epidemic grows, so does number of babies born addicted

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation

ByChuck Goudie and Christine Tressel WLS logo
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
As opioid epidemic grows, so does number of babies born addicted
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The I-Team looked into the most heartbreaking development of the opioid epidemic: tiny lives that begin drug dependent.

DUPAGE COUNTY, Ill. (WLS) -- The I-Team looked into the most heartbreaking development of the opioid epidemic: tiny lives that begin drug dependent.

They can't "just say no" because they are babies born hooked, in a birth fight because of their mothers' addiction.

One baby born every 25 minutes in the United States is born suffering from opioid withdrawal. The syndrome has Illinois on the offensive.

Newborns cry, but one baby's high-pitched wails signal trouble. She entered the world dependent on addictive drugs, among the state's smallest victims of the opioid epidemic. Her symptoms include fevers, irritability and tremors.

"A baby you just can't keep from crying, who can't sleep, who's sweating, who's constantly rooting, looking for something to eat or suck," described Dr. Jeffery Loughead, NICU medical director at NM Central DuPage Hospital.

The use of opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone and codeine during pregnancy can result in a withdrawal syndrome most people have likely never heard of. Medical experts call it Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS.

At Central DuPage hospital, the withdrawing infant is not alone. In the same week as her birth, three other newborns are going through withdrawal, diagnosed with the troubling syndrome. The hospital staff know the drill, and some babies need medicine to help with their pain. Clinical music therapists and volunteer cuddlers are also deployed.

"This is not a blip, this is something that is going to be here for a while. I don't see that it's going to go away anytime soon. In fact, it may actually get a little bit worse," Loughead said.

Across the nation and here in Illinois the number of babies suffering from this syndrome is on the rise. It is now estimated to affect up to 500 babies a year.

"In the past few years we've seen an almost 50 percent increase in the number of cases all across the state. The overall number really obscures the fact it's hitting some communities much harder than others," said Dr. Nirav D. Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

"I think that providers might be one of the first lines of defense in preventing this from becoming a worse epidemic than it already is," said Dr. David Ouyang, Maternal Fetal Medicine at North Shore University Health System. "Opioid addiction really has no boundaries."

Doctors specializing in high risk pregnancies watch for women who may be addicted. But while many would-be moms are not hooked on heroin, a surprising number are still being prescribed habit-forming painkillers while they're pregnant.

"Sometimes the patients don't even recognize the medications they have been prescribed can be harmful to their pregnancy," Ouyang said.

The I-Team obtained the 2016 data on drug dependent babies in Illinois, and the numbers are climbing. Between 2011 and 2016, the number more than doubled in urban counties and more than tripled in rural counties. And Illinois actually has far fewer cases of the newborn drug syndrome than the national average.

"So now we have what I think are good faith estimates. Do they under-report, perhaps, but that's really the reason why we need to make sure we are all operating from the same playbook and the same definitions," Shah said.

The head of Illinois Public Health said a special committee is now meeting to help physicians and hospitals better identify, treat and report cases of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

Some babies need tiny amounts of morphine to help with the painful withdrawal.

"It's a long, drawn-out process of actually getting the baby to a stabilization phase and then working towards a weaning phase. These babies stay in the hospital for a very, very long time," said one NICU nurse.

The average hospital stay for a healthy baby costs about $3,500; for babies of drug addicted mothers, it is $66,000. Researchers are now zeroing in on the long-term effects of being born drug dependent.


Illinois Department of Public Health

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Journal of the American Medical Association