Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing addiction problem in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Of particular concern is the rise of the unmistakable signs of maternal prescription drug abuse in infants; in fact, some hospitals are overwhelmed with the complex task of weaning babies off dangerous prescription drugs.
Kentucky and Tennessee are home to many of the nation’s worst prescription drug abuse problems, according to Dr. David Doty, the Buffalo Trace District Health Department director. Babies born with prescription drug addiction result in skyrocketing rates of accidental overdose and increased emergency room visits, the costs of which are often passed on to taxpayers. Efforts to limit the practice of doctor shopping — whereby addicts visit multiple doctors to get multiple prescriptions — have been moderately successful, although prescription drugs’ decreased availability resulted in a spike in heroin use.
Additionally, as more and more people become trapped in the cycle of prescription drug abuse, the pool of people who can seek full-time employment is shrinking because fewer people can pass a drug test. Those who are already employed but are high on prescription meds increase the risk of workplace accidents, raising workers’ compensation and insurance rates. Incarceration costs rise, too, as people addicted to prescription drugs will often stop at nothing to get another high.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
As worrisome as the financial consequences are, the effects on the newborn and other family members are devastating. Newborns who suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome demonstrate the same symptoms that opiate addicts do when they withdraw from drugs. As a result, the first few days of life are marked by pain, vomiting and diarrhea, seizures, excessive sweating, and stiff limbs. Making matters worse is the fact that no one knows what future problems these smallest of victims will suffer. With no current standard of care, many hospitals are carefully weaning the infants off the mother’s drug of choice.
Perhaps ironically, some physicians advise expectant mothers who take prescription painkillers to continue during pregnancy because the symptoms of sudden withdrawal raise the risk of miscarriage.
“It’s a complex problem that’s going to take a complex solution,” according to Dr. Stephen Patrick, a University of Michigan researcher who studied the effects of neonatal abstinence syndrome.
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