Attendees from seven states gathered Wednesday in Johnson City’s Millennium Centre for the first day of a conference aimed at studying neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, a group of symptoms that can occur in newborns exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in their mothers’ wombs.
According to data compiled by the Tennessee Department of Health, 921 babies born in 2013 experienced withdrawal from drugs their mothers used while pregnant and 158 have already been born this year showing NAS symptoms.
“We’re trying to take a broad approach to the issue of substance abuse generally and the sub-epidemic of neonatal abstinence syndrome specifically,” Tennessee Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner said Wednesday. “We have a tri-lateral approach to this problem: prevention, treatment and control.”
Frustrating to health care professionals is that NAS is entirely preventable, the commissioner said, by encouraging the use of birth control to prevent unintended pregnancies and by educating women of childbearing age who are taking prescription painkillers about the associated risks.
Last year, a third of the recorded infants born in the state diagnosed with NAS were to mothers who only got their drugs by illegal means. Another 63 percent were to mothers who were prescribed the medication legally or who were using a mix of prescribed and non-prescribed substances.
Dreyzehner said a monitoring database set up last April by the state has halved the practice of doctor shopping and next month will start reminding clinicians to notify their childbearing-age female patients about the risks of the medications.
But there is little research into NAS prevention, and he hoped the officials at Wednesday conference could help facilitate some solutions.
“We can’t say definitively what the best approaches are at this point,” the commissioner said. “There are a lot of people who strongly believe one thing or strongly believe another, and there’s limited data to support both approaches, but the science is not settled yet.”
Eric Stockton, health program manager for the Appalachian Regional Commission, the organization that funded the NAS conference, said the event was held to begin to address the dearth of information about the affliction.
“We have done some work to document our regional health disparities and health conditions,” he said. “In the 2000s, we did some research that showed very clearly some regional disparities about substance abuse in the region and especially central Appalachia.”
The Appalachian Regional Commission is a federally-created agency with the mission of spurring economic development in 13 designated states.
Its health-centered arm was created to ensure a healthy and productive work force in the member-states.
“We all benefit from having healthier families and a healthier work force,” Stockton said. “People who have poor health conditions, whether it’s chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease or cancer, but also substance abuse problems are less likely to be able to contribute to our communities, take care of their families, feel good about themselves and be productive citizens.”
After the conclusion of the conference Thursday, ARC staff members will generate a report from its discussions that can be used for reference and will be presented at a national health conference in Atlanta later this year.
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