Babies born addicted to drugs a growing problem in TN

(WSMV file photo)

Across the country, an alarming number of babies are born addicted to drugs.

The epidemic has led to some parts of Tennessee seeing a five-fold increase in those births in the last decade.

A Vanderbilt doctor said don’t blame mothers, blame other doctors.

Every 25 minutes, a baby is born addicted to drugs in the United States. Drugs prescribed by doctors, like Vicodin and hydrocodone, are raising the biggest concern.

“I’ve taken care of babies in the unit who have drug withdrawal and their mom was treated for a headache with an opioid,” said Dr. Stephen Patrick with Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. “They have no idea their baby could have withdrawal from an opioid exposure.”

Patrick works with babies born with symptoms of drug withdrawal, or neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

“They can have difficulty feeding, some difficulty breathing. They’re very jittery, and less commonly they can also have seizures if untreated,” Patrick said.

Doctors can diagnose NAS within a couple of days. Symptoms last several weeks.

It takes almost a month to wean the baby off the drugs.

“If we keep mom and baby together, the babies have fewer symptoms,” Patrick said. “If we can promote breastfeeding when it’s appropriate, they also have fewer symptoms.”

Short-term use of a prescribed opioid appears to be safe, but chronic use creates problems, especially when it’s mixed with something else.

“If someone uses an opioid and they also smoke cigarettes, they use a drug like Xanax, those appear to increase an infant’s risk of getting drug withdrawal,” Patrick said.

Patrick blames this alarming epidemic on over-prescribed painkillers.

“Even though we’ve made a lot of progress in Tennessee in curbing some of our opioid prescribing, we are still one of the highest opioid-prescribing states in the U.S.,” he said.

Doctors rely on mothers to be open about their drug history. Patrick said the key is catching an addiction early and offering mothers treatment without judgment.

East Tennessee is battling the highest rates of babies born with NAS. That’s where eight district attorney generals are suing opioid manufacturers.

News 4 has learned the Davidson County district attorney is also considering a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies on behalf of thousands of babies born addicted to drugs.

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