A local neonatologist said prescription medication use is the likely cause of a jump in the number of babies born addicted to drugs, and the state is on track for the highest number ever.
So far this year, there have been more drug-addicted babies born in Tennessee than in all of 2011, according to statistics released last week by the state Department of Health.
“They’ve been keeping very accurate tabs on the infants suffering from symptoms of withdrawal. So far this year, (the state) has had 643,” said Dr. Des Bharti, a professor and neonatologist in East Tennessee State Universuty’s pediatrics department.
“If we keep on collecting these numbers it looks like we’ll probably reach 800 this year” statewide, he said. Most of those drug-addicted babies are born to mothers from ages 13 to21, he said.
Of the 643 drug-addicted babies born in Tennessee, 100 were in the Department of Health’s North East division, which includes Washington, Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson and Unicoi counties.
Statistics are more accurate this year because beginning in January, the Department of Health made neonatal abstinence syndrome a reportable illness. That means hospitals are now required to report the case as soon as the baby is diagnosed.
“This is a preventable condition that can be largely eliminated. Preventing addiction, thoughtful treatment and preventing unintended pregnancy are the most productive conversations we can have right now,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner.
The mothers who delivered drug-dependent babies reported a variety of reasons for their drug use — prescribed medications for legitimate treatment, a mixture of prescribed and non-prescribed substances and illegal substances. Some women were unable to provide the source of the substance they used during their pregnancy, according to the Department of Health.
Bharti said he’s seen projected estimates of around 1,400 drug-addicted babies in the nation this year.
“If there are 1,400 nationwide and we have 800 in Tennessee, we are in big trouble in the state of Tennessee,” Bharti said. “We are wondering what’s the reason why we are having so much withdrawal here.”
It could be legally prescribed medications, according to the Department of Health. The 2013 data shows 42 percent of women who have drug-addicted babies used only substances prescribed to them for legitimate treatment.
Bharti said Tennessee has a high rate of prescribed medications.
“There’s a lot of prescription drug use in our region.”
So much so that if it were spread out to everyone in the state of Tennessee, there would be 51 hydrocodone tablets, 22 Xanax tablets and 21 tablets of oxycodone prescribed for each resident.
When mothers addicted to opioids are identified, it’s “recommended these mothers be enrolled in a program where they can be prescribed suboxone or subutex, Bharti said.
“There are more than 100 physicians in our region that is prescribing suboxone, which is a morphine-like substance. We are seeing an excessive number of mothers on subutex and suboxone. These babies are showing significant symptoms of drug withdrawal,” Bharti said.
It’s an issue that also drives up health care costs.
Drug-addicted babies usually require a 15-day hospital stay to ensure they are monitored while going through withdrawals.
“An infant exposed to drugs before birth is probably going to cost close to $41,000. For non-addicted babies, the cost is roughly $7,285.
Bharti said education is the key to stopping the abuse.
“We need to start with the education of children when they are in school, so they know how to build up confidence and not use drugs,” he said. That reduces the chance that a woman will used drugs while pregnant.
“Education needs to start very, very early. We need to inspire more confidence, have more sports for these young people ... things that can enrich you and make you feel good about yourself.”
Bharti said studies have shown that drug-addicted babies can grow up to have problems with their memory, cognition, verbal skills and academic performance.
“I feel very strongly, why would we in Upper East Tennessee have so much prescription drug use. It’s beyond my imagination. Physicians should be screening this population very carefully.”