Hooked from Birth: 6 percent of Colorado newborns may suffer drug withdrawal

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Photo: Newborn baby crying iStockSome Colorado hospitals are seeing a significant increase in the number of babies born physically dependent on drugs ranging from Percocet to heroin, and a state committee estimates the rate of drug-dependent newborns could be as high as 6 percent.

But, as Colorado Matters explores in the second part of the series "Hooked from Birth," it's impossible to definitively know the rate. Colorado has no statewide system to track the number of newborns suffering from prenatal drug exposure.

"It’s a problem that the nation is struggling with," says Dr. Kathryn Wells, a pediatrician at Denver Health and co-chair of the state government's Colorado Substance Exposed Newborns Steering Committee (SEN).

In order to track the numbers, Wells says doctors need consistent ways to assess the babies, such as asking mothers about drug abuse or testing the infants. She says neither is being done routinely across the state.

And when doctors do determine that babies are drug-dependent at birth, there is no state requirement that the diagnosis be recorded, nor is there a statewide database to collect the information.

In the absence of statewide numbers, the state's steering committee relies on surveys about drug use among women of childbearing age for its estimate that 6 percent of Colorado’s babies are exposed to drugs during pregnancy.

And some hospitals are tracking the problem in their facilities. Their findings point to an alarming growth in the number of babies born drug-dependent. At Children’s Hospital Colorado in Colorado Springs, the number of babies suffering from withdrawal at birth more than doubled in the past five years. At Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, the number rose from two infants in 2009 to 18 in 2013.

Those numbers were provided to Colorado Public Radio by Dr. Mary Laird, whose Pediatrix Medical Group provides newborn care at both hospitals and compiled the data.

Some states clamp down, others encourage treatment

Other states across the country have taken different approaches to addressing the problem. Tennessee recently passed a law that allows women who abuse drugs during pregnancy to be criminally charged for harm done to their infants.

"I think it’s unfortunate," Wells says. "We were very concerned about the potential for criminal prosecution [in Colorado] making a woman who is struggling with addiction – a true medical illness - afraid to seek prenatal care for her baby."

As such, a 2012 Colorado law supported by the state's steering committee protects from prosecution women who admit to drug use during the course of prenatal care. The goal is to encourage women to give doctors the information they need to best treat their babies.

The committee has also recommended that pregnant women be asked regularly by their doctors about drug use, and be tested at least once during pregnancy. Wells says she hopes health care providers can implement these policies without legislation.

However, under civil law in Colorado, if a baby tests positive for drugs without a legitimate medical reason, it is considered child abuse. In certain cases, that can result in the child being removed from the care of the parents, even straight out of the hospital.

But Wells says that possibility shouldn't deter expecting mothers from seeing their doctors.

"I think there’s a misbelief that every time a call is made to social services it would result in a child being taken away from the family, and that’s just not the case," she says, adding that a mother’s participation in a drug treatment program can be an important factor in the state allowing her to keep her child.

The underlying problem

To reduce the number of drug-dependent newborns, Wells says it's essential to tackle the underlying problem of drug abuse among parents. The federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health listed Colorado second in the nation in the abuse of prescription drugs like Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin. And according to that survey, 14 percent of Coloradans ages 18-25 abuse prescription painkillers.

"They are very addictive drugs," Wells says. "What happens is frequently it began as a legitimate use of the drug and then the abuse ensued. And oftentimes, the individual that abuses the drug doesn’t have an awareness that that her excessive use of the drug is not only abusive and dangerous to her but extremely dangerous to her baby."