The problem is growing so fast it could outpace the crack baby epidemic of the 1990s, one official said.
There are no nationwide statistics available for the number of newborns who have to be treated for drug withdrawal syndrome, but in states with the biggest prescription drug problem the numbers of newborns affected is growing at an alarming rate.
Neonatal Withdrawal Syndrome
When children are exposed to addictive drugs in the womb, they can be born with neonatal withdrawal syndrome, a collection of symptoms that can include seizures, fever, blotchy skin respiratory problems, extreme sensitivity to sound and light, and incessant shrill crying.
One doctor said the addicted babies rub their noses with their fists so frantically their skins bleeds.
"It's the newborn equivalent of an adult who goes off the drugs cold turkey. It's really horrible to see these kids. They look in so much pain," Lewis Rubin, director of newborn services at Tampa General Hospital, told USA Today.
In Florida, the epicenter of the prescription drug abuse problem, the number of cases of newborns treated for drug withdrawal syndrome has exploded, increasing 388% over a four-year period. Addicted newborns increased from 354 in 2006 to 1,374 in 2010. The 2010 number was a 42% increase over the previous year.
Widespread and Growing Problem
Some states are just beginning to collect data on newborns with neonatal withdrawal syndrome, but the numbers that are available are shocking:
- Maine Medical Center in Portland saw an increase from 18 cases in 2001 to 121 in 2010.
- East Tennessee Children's Hospital in Knoxville cases jumped from 40 in 2008 to 106 in the past 12 months.
- St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa has already seen a 33% increase in cases so far in 2011 compared to 2010.
The cases in Florida prompted Attorney General Pam Bondi to propose legislation to create a statewide task force on prescription drug abuse and newborns. The task force would focus on documenting the cases, the costs, the long-term effects and develop strategies for prevention efforts.
"I have seen firsthand the most vulnerable victims of prescription drug abuse, and we must do everything we can to protect these newborns," said Bondi in a news release. "A thorough examination of this emerging problem now will help us develop sound prevention strategies for the future."
The key to solving the problem is getting professional help for women to quit pain pills as early as possible in their pregnancies, Florida officials said. They cannot quit cold turkey because their baby could go into withdrawal in the womb, have seizures and even die.
But drug-abusing pregnant women are not likely to tell their doctors about their addiction, making early intervention difficult if not impossible at the primary health care level. Consequently, healthcare providers are left with task of treating drug withdrawal symptoms in the tiniest of patients.