When opiate addiction takes hold in any community, there are big prices to pay.
Rates of overdoses, suicides, divorces and armed robberies increase.
And in quiet, low-lit hospital wards babies are born who shake and cry uncontrollably — babies who have such severe muscle spasms that it can take two nurses to change their diapers — babies who are as dependent on drugs as their mothers.
Anyone familiar with the horrors of drug addiction is most likely familiar with the agonizing symptoms of drug withdrawal.
The projectile vomiting, the diarrhea, tremors, seizures, muscle contractions and excessive sweating.
It can deter even the strongest and most determined.
It is excruciating to watch someone go through it — especially when the person withdrawing is a newborn baby. Most drug-dependent newborns begin withdrawal symptoms by the time they are 4 days old, according to a report issued in January by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
In 2005 I wrote a column about the growing number of drug-dependent babies being born at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
A few years earlier it had been quite rare for a drug-dependent baby to be born at the hospital. By 2005 there were about 25 of them.
The nurse who spoke to me in 2005 did so from her small office down the hall from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where almost all of the drug-dependent babies in the area are cared for.
She knew it was just the beginning.
She was right.
In 2009, just four years later, there were 90 drug-dependent babies born at EMMC.
There were 464 drug-dependent babies born in the state of Maine in 2008, up from 165 in 2005, according to Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills.
The majority of the drug-dependent babies born at EMMC are dependent on methadone, according to Mark Moran, a social worker at the hospital.
It is not unusual for 20 to 30 pregnant women at a time to be enrolled in The Acadia Hospital’s narcotic treatment program. They have instituted a toddler play group at the hospital’s treatment center.
“About two-thirds of our drug-dependent cases involve methadone, one-third involves buprenophine. Less than 10 percent of our drug-dependent babies involve cases where the mom is using illicit drugs,” said Moran.
Because the affected babies are very sensitive, the wards where they are cared for are quiet and low-lit.
“They can be very difficult to settle down,” Moran said.
Mills recently told a reporter, “Imagine the impact of these births on our foster care system, on our health care system, on our education system, on the social, medical, economic fabric of our society.”
Babies who are born drug-dependent are more likely to have developmental delays and behavioral problems. They are also more likely to be abused, according to the DHHS report.
As bad as all of this sounds, Moran said the problem would be worse if the addicted mothers were not in the methadone or buprenophine therapy programs.
Opiate-addicted women who discover they are pregnant and try to quit on their own are more likely to miscarry and give birth prematurely, he said, and much, much more likely to relapse. The up-and-down exposure and withdrawal that come with active opiate use are extremely dangerous for a baby, he said, making methadone and buprenophine treatment the best solution for pregnant opiate addicts.
The best solution for all, of course, is if there were no such term as “pregnant opiate addicts.”
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