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By Laura Ungar
Hospitalizations for Kentucky babies born dependent on drugs because of their mothers’ addictions are continuing to rise steeply even as drug overdose deaths level off, a new University of Kentucky report says.
The comprehensive report on drug overdose deaths, hospitalizations and emergency department visits, released Friday by the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, says there were 824 hospitalizations for infants with “neonatal abstinence syndrome” in 2012, up from 678 in 2011 and 28 in 2000. Babies with the condition experience the physical effects of drug withdrawal, but not the psychological signs of addiction.
The Courier-Journal documented the rise from 2000 to 2011 in a package of stories in 2012.
“Our hospitals are facing an increasing challenge, with inconsolable newborns who have been exposed to drug abuse in the womb. It’s heartbreaking to hear nurses describe their efforts to calm these babies who shake and scream in pain,” said U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky 5th district, co-founder of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse. “It’s a complex problem, and we need to increase the dialogue between physicians, healthcare leaders, legislators and other stakeholders to better help expectant mothers struggling with addictions and their innocent babies.”
UK researchers said the numbers represent hospitalizations, not individual babies, and some infants may have been hospitalized more than once.
“We can’t say why they are increasing. It requires further research,” said Svetla Slavova, one of the researchers who prepared the report. “It is a problem that needs to be addressed.”
The report also shows that even though drug overdose deaths overall have leveled off and adult drug overdose hospitalizations have dropped slightly, heroin-overdose deaths rose 207 percent between 2011 and 2012.
According to a 2012 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 60 percent to 80 percent of infants exposed to opiates in the womb develop neonatal abstinence syndrome. Opiates include heroin as well as prescription pills.
Babies born dependent on these drugs suffer the pain of withdrawal. Many cry constantly. Some suffer diarrhea, vomiting, low-grade fevers, sweating and seizures. They’re extra-sensitive to noise and light and often console themselves by sucking. Some born prematurely experience respiratory distress and have to be placed on ventilators.
Carl Varney, a recovering prescription drug addict who now works as a coalition coordinator for the Eastern Kentucky anti-drug organization Operation UNITE, said the drug lifestyle can lead to unintended pregnancies, and there’s not enough education and awareness in the community about what drugs can do to an infant. He also said there are too few places to turn for help.
“There’s not enough rehab for pregnant women, and that’s a problem,” said Varney, 34, of Manchester, Ky. “We need more options for these ladies.”
Along with the rise in infant hospitalizations has come a similar increase in the charges for these hospital stays in Kentucky, which reached $40.2 million in 2012, up from $200,000 in 2000. Researchers found that 694 of the 824 hospitalizations in 2012 were expected to be paid by government-funded Medicaid, for a total of $34.9 million.
The JAMA study found that national health care costs for addicted newborns are also soaring — from $190 million in 2000 to $720 million in 2009.
Drug-dependent babies stayed an average of 16.4 days in the hospital at a cost of $53,400 per infant, researchers found in the national study, with Medicaid paying the bill in 80 percent of cases.
Among other findings in Friday’s UK report:
• There were 1,031 drug overdose deaths in 2012, compared with 1,022 in 2011, which represented a 1.2 percent decrease in the age-adjusted drug overdose mortality rate from 2011 to 2012.
• Heroin contributed to 129 Kentucky resident overdose deaths in 2012, up from 42 in 2011;
• Age-adjusted drug overdose hospitalization rates dropped 2.4 percent, from 147 hospitalizations per 100,000 people in 2011 to 143.1 in 2012;
• Benzodiazepines were the primary drugs involved in Kentuckians’ inpatient hospitalizations in 2012, accounting for 1,686 hospitalizations.
Many of the report’s findings were similar to those in another report released by the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy in July. That report also looked at trends in overdose deaths through 2012, but used a slightly different data source -- medical examiner data instead of the vital statistics data used by UK researchers.
UK researcher Terry Bunn said both reports reflect a downward trend in prescription drug deaths, but also a need to stay focused on the issue of drug abuse overall.
“We are definitely making strides in decreasing prescription drug involvement in deaths, emergency room visits and hospitalizations,” Bunn said. “But ...we’re still seeing an increase in heroin deaths.”
Editor’s note: This article reprinted with permission through the Kentucky Press News Service.