This story, originally published by WRCB, appeared Oct. 10, 2017. Copyright 2017 WRCB.
HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) – Tennessee has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the country. Channel 3 is learning more and more babies are being born drug dependent.
Tennesseans are twice as likely to know an infant born into drug withdrawal than the average American.
So far this year, 565 babies in Tennessee have been born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, better known as NAS. Close to 40 of those babies were born at Erlanger Hospitals.
Doctor Gary Bell has worked in the neonatal unit for three decades. Over the last six years, he has noticed a change. “Last year I think was our peak. We treated in the NICU 35 babies.”
They’re considered drug dependent babies. Meaning 48 hours after the umbilical cord is cut, the infant begins going through drug withdrawal. “They can have irritability for sure. That is the most common symptom. Very tremulous, can even have seizures.”
Doctor Bell and his team use swaddles and dark rooms to treat the babies. If those measures don’t work, they are admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where the baby receives opioids. “We will give them enough morphine to calm down their symptoms. It will take us several weeks to ween them off that morphine very gradually.”
Delivering a baby dependent on opioids can cost more than 60 thousand dollars. The cost of NICU care is even more. Doctor Bell said NAS is preventable. The best thing an expectant mother can do is talk to her doctor. “Not every addicted baby is born to a mother who is an illegal drug addict. Some of these are prescription drugs and very valuable for their back pain or whatever pain they are in and needed them. Those babies can still have problems just like those who take drugs illegally.”
Each baby is assigned to a social worker who will evaluate their home life, before being released from the NICU.
In Tennessee, a woman could be prosecuted for the illegal use of a narcotic while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug. A woman could face aggravated assault charges and if she is convicted, face up to 15-years in prison.