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Prescription drug addiction among pregnant women becoming 'monstrous tidal wave'

By Catherine Olian
Rock Center

They are the youngest victims of the prescription drug epidemic, tiny babies born already addicted to the drugs their mothers were taking when they were pregnant. More than13,000 babies a year are born in America addicted to prescription painkillers like OxyContin, hydrocodone and other narcotic drugs, according to a recent study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Rock Center visited three hospitals and spoke to doctors at many more. These babies may seem normal at birth, but within days they start having symptoms like severe shaking, tremors and more.

“They vomit. They have diarrhea. They'll often have fever, sweating…extreme irritability,” said Dr. Mary Newport, the director of the neonatal unit at the Spring Hill Regional Hospital north of Tampa, Fla., in an interview airing Thursday at 10pm/9c on NBC.

The newborns also have trouble sleeping, feeding and they often shriek in pain, their bodies craving the medication they’re addicted to. The number of babies born this way has increased dramatically over the past five years, Dr. Newport said. This year she expects to treat nearly 20 times the number of infants going through withdrawal than she did in 2007.

“It’s terrible,” Newport said. “We sometimes feel that we have a neonatal drug rehabilitation unit.”

A baby experiencing withdrawal from painkillers

Annabella was just a few weeks old and she couldn’t stop crying. The only way the nurses could treat her symptoms was to give her morphine, a narcotic similar to the drug her mother took. As shocking as it may seem to give a baby multiple doses of morphine a day, Dr.Newport said, “if we don’t treat the baby…the baby will develop seizures and the baby can die.” Death can result from violent seizures, Dr. Newport said, that cause the baby to stop breathing, cutting off oxygen to the baby’s heart and other vital organs. 

Many women become addicted to painkillers after they’ve been prescribed them by their doctors. Others, like Annabella’s mother, 20-year-old Katelynn Yost, start taking painkillers recreationally, never thinking they’ll become addicts.

“I thought I was going to stay in school and go to college,” Yost said. “I didn’t think I would end up doing drugs and being addicted to them.”

When she unexpectedly got pregnant, Yost decided to get drug treatment for the sake of her child.

“I want to be there for my baby now and help her have a good life,” she said. But first, Annabella had to go through the painful stages of withdrawal. “I know it’s all my fault,” Yost said. ”I’m the one that did it to her. It really hurts.”

There are no easy answers for pregnant addicts. Even if they want to get off the drugs quickly, doctors advise them not to.  Going cold turkey could cause them to miscarry. Instead, the women are switched from the painkillers they are on to methadone or buprenorphine, drugs that keep them stable and help curb their cravings. Unfortunately, these drugs can also cause severe withdrawal symptoms in newborns.

Treating pregnant women addicted to prescription meds

“You’re told either you can take the methadone and your child could be born addicted, or you detox, stop taking everything and your baby could die,” one pregnant addict told us. Either way, “I’m deathly scared.”

The sheer volume of babies born addicted is putting a strain on the healthcare system.  Healthy newborns typically stay in the hospital for a few days, but these babies stay weeks and sometimes months, at an average cost of more than $50,000 per child, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Doctors at the Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia told us that sometimes the neonatal unit is so full of babies going through withdrawal that newborns with other problems like prematurity have to be turned away due to lack of space.

Dr. David Chaffin, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Marshall University Medical Center participated in a multi-hospital study that had a stunning result: at least 10 percent of all babies in West Virginia are born with prescription narcotics in their systems. He calls painkiller addiction among pregnant women “a monstrous tidal wave” with no end in sight.

As for little Annabella Yost, she finished going through withdrawal. She’s off all drugs and her mother says she’s doing well. The outlook for these babies is guardedly optimistic, but until large scale, long-term studies of these kids have been completed, no one really knows if they’ll have problems later in life.

All that the doctors can say for sure is that as long as women keep abusing prescription pain pills and doctors keep overprescribing them, expect to see more and more babies suffer the consequences.

“They are the innocent victims,” Dr. Newport told us. “They had no control over it and yet they suffer tremendously for it.”

Click here to watch Kate Snow's report, 'Born That Way,' from NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.