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How Many Babies Suffer From Opiate Withdrawal? Rising Numbers Have Doctors Concerned

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The rate that Americans are getting addicted to prescription opiates and heroin has reached record numbers in recent years. The epidemic — which is partly due to a spike in the use of prescription painkillers over the last 20 years — is so bad lately that it’s been regarded as the worst drug crisis in modern history. Many of the forgotten victims, however, are the babies who are born dependent on these drugs after their mother became addicted while using them during their pregnancies. So, just how many babies suffer from opiate withdrawal? The skyrocketing rate has doctors concerned about the tragic state of the nation's epidemic.

New research published by JAMA Pediatrics on Monday found that "maternal opioid use increased nearly five-fold in the United States between 2000 and 2012." And with the increase of opioid use by expectant mothers, the incidence of babies suffering from withdrawal, which is known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, has risen as well.

Specifically, the research says that the incidence of babies experiencing withdrawal symptoms in urban areas increased from 1.4 to 4.8 per 1,000 hospital births over a decade of evaluation. The rate is especially alarming among infants born in rural areas: Out of every 1,000 babies born in 2004, about 1.2 were born with opioid withdrawal. By 2013, that number jumped to about 7.5 per 1,000 hospital births among rural infants.

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BURLINGTON, VT - FEBRUARY 05: Recovery brochures are offered at a program assisting former addicts on February 5, 2014 in Burlington, Vermont. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin recently devoted his entire State of the State speech to the scourge of heroin. Heroin and other opiates have begun to devastate many communities in the Northeast and Midwest leading to a surge in fatal overdoses in a number of states. As prescription painkillers, such as the synthetic opiate OxyContin, become increasingly expensive and regulated, more and more Americans are turning to heroin to fight pain or to get high. Heroin, which has experienced a surge in production in places such as Afghanistan and parts of Central America, has a relatively inexpensive street price and provides a more powerful affect on the user. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

"Compared with their urban peers, rural infants and mothers with opioid-related diagnoses were more likely to be from lower-income families, have public insurance, and be transferred to another hospital following delivery," the study authors explained, saying the alarming geographic disparity mostly boils down to financial resources and treatment resources for rural women and children. Further, they noted, this research "highlights the urgent need for policymakers to appropriate funding for clinicians and programs that could improve access to opioid prevention and treatment services for rural women and children."

When babies are born hooked to drugs like heroin (and other opiates), the withdrawal symptoms they go through are heart-wrenching to read about, and symptoms certainly even more difficult for medical caretakers to treat when the patient can't explain themselves. According to CNN, babies going through opiate withdrawal will inconsolably cry, and then shake, vomit, and can suffer from diarrhea.

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"When they are born, because they're no longer being exposed to an opiate, they're going to go through withdrawal," Dr. Sean Loudin, a neonatologist in Huntington, West Virginia, which is also at the epicenter of the nation's heroin addiction, told CNN. "That is what we deal with. We deal with babies going through withdrawal."

The research team suggests one way to help fight this devastating epidemic is to increase the access to drugs designed to treat heroin addiction, such as buprenorphine, for primary care patients.

This study is a harsh reminder that a call for action is now more urgent than ever — because babies shouldn't have to start their lives fighting dependency and suffering immense pain.