According to the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, more than 90 Americans die every day from opioid overdose. The opioid crisis has reached epidemic levels in the United States, with as many as more than a half a million more people estimated to die from overdoses in the next decade alone, according to a forecast in June by STAT. As you dive deeper into the bleak statistics of opioid addiction, there's one that stands out above the rest — and it's why kids are the biggest victims of the opioid crisis.
Women and adolescents have been identified as two special populations that have been significantly impacted by the opioid epidemic, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. But there's a much younger demographic that has faced an alarming rise in opioid addiction — or more specifically, opioid withdrawal.
In the United States, a baby is born suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome — the official term for opioid withdrawal in newborns — every 25 minutes: Not every day or even every hour, but every 25 minutes. A 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the number of babies born with opioid withdrawal had tripled over a 15-year period between 1999 and 2013.
Babies born with NAS exhibit a long list of terrifying symptoms that can appear as early as within 24 hours to as late as 10 days after birth. According to Stanford Children's Health, symptoms of NAS can include tremors and trembling, excessive high-pitched crying, vomiting, diarrhea, and even frightening seizures. It's these rising numbers of babies born addicted to opioids that have the medical community rethinking it's previous approach to treating these fragile patients, an in-depth report from The New York Times published on Friday.
Just as treatment for adults with opioid addiction typically includes the use of substitute opioid medications such as methadone and buprenorphine to allow a patient to withdrawal, newborns often require similar treatment. Typical treatment involves the administration of morphine under the newborn's tongue over a course of two to 12 weeks, allowing the babies to wean from the drug, according to The Times. Recent studies have shown that other supportive treatments using morphine sulphate or buprenorphine are more effective than morphine for babies with NAS.
Typically, after a baby with NAS is born, it's taken away from its mother to be treated for the effects of opioid withdrawal in the NICU. But according to many experts, this could be the worst approach for the health of the newborn. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine pediatrics professor Dr. Debra L. Bogen emphasized to The Times the important role that mothers must play in the recovery of newborns with NAS: "The model of care that’s being touted now is really that the mother is the first line of treatment for the baby." Dr. Matthew Grossman, a pediatric hospitalist at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital added, "Mom is a powerful treatment."
It's a radical and far more compassionate shift in the approach of how children with NAS are being treated by the medical community. It also reflects the changing attitudes towards drug-addicted mothers. In the 1980s and 90s, these same children would have been labeled crack babies, and their mothers far worse. Now 30 years later, the medical profession has taken its first steps towards an approach that encourages holistic, bonded healing of both mother and baby. When these children are born with no choice or say in an addiction that was done to them, this kind of compassion is essential for the opioid epidemic's youngest and most vulnerable victims.