New study calls for more help for drug-addicted babies

Published: Oct. 5, 2017 at 4:41 PM EDT
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Babies born with a drug dependency are in great need of help, according to health officials. A new study is calling for federal action to address the problem that not only affects the entire country, but especially the Mountain State.

Lawmakers announced the release of a study this week by the Government Accountability Office that outlines what needs to be done to address the issue of babies born addicted to opioids.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.) announced the national study that looks at neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). The report, "Federal Action Needed to Address Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome," recommends several practices to address the issue and treat newborns.

Jenkins introduced legislation, the NAS Healthy Babies Act, which required this study. The House passed it in 2016. The legislation was included in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which was signed into law by the president.

"In West Virginia, we have a huge problem we know with drug and opioid abuse, but some of the smallest, most innocent victims are babies who are born exposed with a drug-addicted mother," Capito told WSAZ. "It's a sad situation for them, for their families, and we need to work with the family together to make sure that we can get them healthier.

State health statistics show that nearly 1 in 20 babies (or 5 percent) born in West Virginia in 2016 were born drug dependent.

The study suggests educating healthcare providers on screening and treating NAS, as well as addressing the stigma that the mothers face that keeps them from seeking treatment.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, the State Health Officer in West Virginia, says 1 in 20 babies in the state are born with NAS.

"Even more babies, or at least their mothers, have exposure to substances," Gupta said. "That's about 1 in 6 mothers have exposure while pregnant to a substance, a drug. That's very concerning."

The statistics are also alarming on a national scale.

"One child is born every 25 minutes with this drug exposure and it's creating huge problems for the child, for the family and also for the health care providers to figure out how to meet this challenge," Capito said.

Capito said would like to see more effort to find out the long-term effects for a child exposed to drugs.

She said resources need to be available from before a pregnancy to years after a child is born.

"I think there's a great initiative in the state for pre-natal care, to try to work with mothers to see that we don't get to this problem," Capito said. "I think that is an initiative that needs to go forward so that's education, that's prevention, that's diversion of drugs and try to keep our mothers, our pre-natal mothers, healthy. That's going to be, that's something that we've really been working on in West Virginia. These are innocent victims that, they're not making choices in their life, these babies aren't. They're born, many of them sadly, exposed to not just one drug, but several drugs."

Gupta agrees, saying there needs to be more research into how NAS could impact a child long term, especially when it comes to education.

"I'm hearing a lot from teachers and others in the school system say, we're seeing these kids aren't paying attention as much in as early an age as kindergarten," Gupta said. "I think it's time that we put resources to conduct research into what are, if there are any, long-term impacts of NAS."

He would also like to see more resources to help keep families together. Between an overwhelmed foster care system and the negative side effects of separating children from their biological parents, Gupta says separation should be a last resort.

While health experts want to avoid NAS in the first place, Gupta said he would like to see more options for women who have already made that mistake.

"When the baby is born, how do we help the mother and the baby stay together and be treated in a humane way so the separation doesn't happen," Gupta said. "That mother, baby relationship at the very beginning of life is so critical and so part of the family unit that we want to do everything possible to maintain that part while being able to treat them both, the mother and the baby."

When it comes to increasing resources, Capito is calling on the federal government to help.

"I think what we'll see here is some leadership at the federal level to sort of target in on this problem, to make sure that areas such as ours that are deeply affected, but always across the country, there hasn't really been a comprehensive plan forward by HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and that's what we're looking at so that we can formulate future legislative initiatives to try to help with this," Capito said. "Number one, I think always when you have a problem, we recognize we have this drug problem, but now we have innocent victims of a drug problem that is even bigger than what we imagined. So I think we're going to look at some kind of initiatives where our HHS here at the federal level works with the state level to, you know, create standards of care, best practices, prevention initiatives and follow up with these babies to see how they're progressing once they move into their elementary school years. I think that's an important segment of where we need to look to make sure we're doing the right things early."

Both Capito and Gupta say they are pleased that a report is bringing attention and awareness to this issue. They also believe a facility in Huntington, West Virginia, is serving as a good example of how to tackle this portion of the drug crisis.

"We're so glad that this has become a priority for the federal government," Gupta said. "The report that came out to look at, all of the other options that are available, all options on the table, is how do you help address this issue of NAS and I think we have an excellent example in Huntington at Lily's Place."

Lily's Place is a facility with specialized medical care for drug-dependent infants.

Capito would like to see the center become the standard.

"I think what we do is we look at the Lily's Place model, which is recognized as a successful model and set standards so that it can go across the country," Capito said. "I think that's one of the goals that Congressman Jenkins and I have worked towards, to make sure that those standards that are so successful at Lily's Place can be replicated across the country. We also recognize that a lot of our hospital settings, a lot of resources are going to that. We need to make sure that we have best practices, that we're working to educate mothers, that we're working to recognize the problem, and that we're looking for non-medication kinds of treatments. I think it's just a whole spectrum of solutions that we're looking for."