The formal name for this diagnosis is neonatal abstinence syndrome. It’s when babies exposed to drugs before birth experience withdrawal. Sullivan County accounted for 10 percent of all NAS cases in the state during 2013, making it the fifth highest for NAS births in the entire state.
There were 124 babies born with NAS in the eight counties that make up Northeast Tennessee, including 84 in Sullivan County. That places Northeast Tennessee as the second-worst region in the state for NAS babies, behind only the entire eastern side of the state.
Seeing this burgeoning problem in the county led the Sullivan County Anti-Drug Coalition to host a panel discussion about the issue at the Sullivan County Health Department on Thursday.
Some of the topics covered included the signs and symptoms of NAS babies.
Some of the signs are continuous or excessive crying, poor feeding, poor weight gain, diarrhea, hyperactivity, arched back, tremors and/or seizures, fever, sweating, yawning and many others. The symptoms vary depending on the type of drug the mother was using.
Newborns who are born with NAS can sometimes have low birth weight, small head circumference, congenital malformations, signs of drug effects, seizures and signs of drug withdrawal or dependence.
By now, some people may be wondering why a mother would want to subject her baby to this. There is a simple explanation.
“Drugs activate the same system activated by natural rewards,” said Teri Evans, a registered nurse with the Sullivan County Health Department. “But drugs activated the system stronger and longer. Drugs hijack the dopamine system and the brain becomes dependent on the drug.”
Many health professionals also say to not detox mothers during pregnancy. The reason for this is there have been significant reports of fetal death when a mother tries to detox while pregnant. While the mother may be able to handle the detox symptoms, many times an unborn fetus simply cannot handle all the physical stress that comes with withdrawal.
“Addiction is a disease of the brain, not a moral failure,” Evans said. “Addiction is the only disease you get yelled at for having.”
So far, the state does not want to criminalize the mothers, as they believe treatment is probably the best option.
However, Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus said there could be legislation soon requiring mothers who give birth to NAS babies to attend a drug court or treatment program. If the mothers don’t attend or finish the program or the mothers have given birth to more than one NAS baby, then criminal prosecutions could be brought, Staubus said.
Another speaker with the Department of Children’s Services, who did not wish to be named, said DCS is trying to figure out ways to address the problem.
There were 54,984 infants born in Tennessee in 2012. Out of those, 736 were born with NAS. During the same year, there were 906 babies born into DCS custody and 179 of those babies had NAS. So even though only 1.6 percent of infants were born into DCS custody, they were 24.3 percent of all NAS cases.
The speaker said that was a real problem that DCS is working on addressing.
The speaker also said there were some actions being taken at the state level with various groups working together to tackle the problem.