Kentucky doctors treat an increasing number of babies suffering from drug addiction given to them by their mothers

Neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, is becoming such a widespread problem that many medical professionals are calling it an epidemic and a public-health crisis. In 2001, 67 Kentucky babies were hospitalized for drug withdrawal, and in 2013, 955 were, according to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Justin Madden writes for The Lexington Herald-Leader.

Baby Sheena, who has neonatal abstinence syndrome, in
treatment at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital.
(Lexington Herald-Leader photo by Mark Cornelison)

Henrietta Bada, a neonatologist at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital, said babies born with NAS are eager to eat, “but then you give them their formula or their feedings, but they just cannot.” She said they can’t “coordinate their suck-swallow reflexes . . . If they are not treated, then they end up with weight loss, dehydration,” and are sicker than if they had only been going through withdrawal.

Bada said she can treat the babies with medication, but she wants to make sure they go to a safe home: “Babies have to go home to a mother that is capable of taking care of him or her.” There isn’t enough care for mothers dealing with drug addictions, she said, “and the lack of care continues after the baby is born.” She also noted that at least 80 percent of the medical bills are paid through Medicaid, “which can cost as much as $60,000.”

The Kentucky Perinatal Association and the state’s Department for Public Health are working together to make standardized treatments for mothers and babies, The Associated Press reported earlier this month. Officials also continue to look for ways to solve the state’s drug problem.

Eric Reynolds, a neonatologist at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, pointed out that NAS isn’t always a result of a mother abusing drugs. “We need better treatment options for the pregnant mothers who have a legitimate medical reason to be on these types of medications,” he said.

Reynolds and Bada said endeavors to fight NAS begin with education, and Reynolds added that the long term effects of NAS are not yet known because it’s early in the epidemic, Madden writes.

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