BUFFALO, N.Y. - Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome babies are the youngest victims of America's drug epidemic and a growing statistic in the medical field.
"The babies are essentially collateral damage," Dr. Don Pickhardt, Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Mercy Hospital, said.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, is when newborns are forced to go through drug withdrawal because their mothers used while they were in utero.
"When I say it's an epidemic, I'm not exaggerating and it literally crosses all socioeconomic demographics," Dr. Pickhardt said.
A recent CDC study found in 28 states a 300 percent increase of NAS cases from 1999 to 2013.
Dr. Pickhardt sees the rising crisis, first-hand.
"For me, I've been at this hospital for four years and just in those four years, we've probably seen our admissions rates increase by 25 to 50 percent," Pickhardt explained. "And probably over the last 10 years, the increase has been almost double that."
NAS can show as a variety of symptoms in a newborn: high pitched, excessive crying, body shakes, poor feeding and blotchy skin.
The symptoms can take up to five days after birth to appear, often after baby and mom have been discharged. Symptoms can persist for weeks.
"These are babies that require, essentially, one on one care. They, again, are often very difficult to console," Pickhardt said. "Many of them require someone to hold them, almost 24/7."
It is a strain on hospital resources. NAS babies need dark, quiet rooms away from the hospital's other newborns. They require extra staff on hand and medication, usually methadone, to wean off their mother's drug of choice.
"I think that any given baby who has this problem may cost $20,000 in the month or more that they're here to be treated," Pickhardt explained. "Obviously that's a cost that the community bears as a whole, not just the hospital specifically."
Dr. Pickhardt said many of these babies are born to mothers without good health insurance, often a publicly funded insurance plan.
For a baby born on Medicaid, a diagnosis of NAS will affect the cost of Medicaid locally and at the state level.
Pickhardt said something needs to be done. One idea is training obstetricians to identify and treat addicted moms, reinventing the wheel of what it means to be an OB.
"I think that what is most important is identifying the moms," Pickhardt said. "And identifying them early in prenatal care is the perfect solution. In cases where that isn't true, then the next best thing would be to identify the moms when they are in the process of delivering their baby. And the last step would be to identify the babies."
But that still is not enough, according to Pickhardt, because it is only treating the symptom.
"I believe that our community as a whole and the medical community in particular, has not really done enough to address this problem," Pickhardt concluded.
If you or someone you know is struggling, there is a 24/7 addiction hotline to call for help in Buffalo and Erie County. That hotline number is 716-831-7007. The website is crisisservices.org.
Click here for a link to Kids Escaping Drugs.
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