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Newly Born, and Withdrawing From Painkillers

Article & photo from: http://www.nytimes.com/

By ABBY GOODNOUGH and KATIE ZEZIMA

Published: April 9, 2011

A nurse administered methadone to Matthew, 4 weeks old, at a medical center in Bangor, Me., while he was held by his father.

BANGOR, Me. — The mother got the call in the middle of the night: her 3-day-old baby was going through opiate withdrawal in a hospital here and had to start taking methadone, a drug best known for treating heroin addiction, to ease his suffering.

The mother had abused prescription painkillers like OxyContin for the first 12 weeks of her pregnancy, buying them on the street in rural northern Maine, and then tried to quit cold turkey — a dangerous course, doctors say, that could have ended in miscarriage. The baby had seizures in utero as a result, and his mother, Tonya, turned to methadone treatment, with daily doses to keep her cravings and withdrawal symptoms at bay.

As prescription drug abuse ravages communities across the country, doctors are confronting an emerging challenge: newborns dependent on painkillers. While methadone may have saved Tonya’s pregnancy, her son, Matthew, needed to be painstakingly weaned from it.

Infants like him may cry excessively and have stiff limbs, tremors, diarrhea and other problems that make their first days of life excruciating. Many have to stay in the hospital for weeks while they are weaned off the drugs, taxing neonatal units and driving the cost of their medical care into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Like the cocaine-exposed babies of the 1980s, those born dependent on prescription opiates — narcotics that contain opium or its derivatives — are entering a world in which little is known about the long-term effects on their development. Few doctors are even willing to treat pregnant opiate addicts, and there is no universally accepted standard of care for their babies, partly because of the difficulty of conducting research on pregnant women and newborns.

Those who do treat pregnant addicts face a jarring ethical quandary: they must weigh whether the harm inflicted by exposing a fetus to powerful drugs, albeit under medical supervision, is justifiable.

“I’ve had pharmacies that have just called back and said: ‘This lady’s pregnant. Why do you want me to fill this scrip? I can’t do that,’ ” said Dr. Craig Smith, a family practitioner in Bridgton, Me. “But when you stop and think about what actually happens during withdrawal and how violent it can be, that would certainly be not in the baby’s best interest.”

Still, even doctors who advocate treating pregnant addicts have had moments of doubt.

“At first I was going, ‘Gosh, what am I doing?’ ” said Dr. Thomas Meek, a primary care physician in Auburn, Me. “ ‘Am I really helping these people?’ ”

There are no national figures that document the extent of the problem, but interviews with doctors, researchers, social workers and women who abused painkillers while pregnant suggest that it has grown rapidly, especially in rural regions, where officials say such abuse is most common.

In Maine, which has been especially plagued by prescription drug abuse, the number of newborns treated or watched for opiate withdrawal, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, at the state’s two largest hospitals climbed to 276 in 2010 from about 70 in 2005. Hospitals in states including Florida and Ohio reported similar increases, and experts said the numbers were probably higher since pregnant women are rarely tested for drug use and many mothers do not admit to abusing opiates.

Read more here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/us/10babies.html?ref=prescriptiondrugabuse&_r=0

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