Tennessee is seeing an increase in babies born addicted to painkillers and other prescription medications due to abuse.
Doctors estimate that as much as 80 percent of women giving birth to addicted babies are misusing prescription drugs.
Tennessee health and children's services officials are working to find ways to curb the spreading epidemic of babies born addicted to prescription drugs and then suffering from withdrawal following birth.
Health officials call the condition Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which is when a baby is born dependent on legally prescribed or illegally obtained drugs used by the mother during her pregnancy.
“The babies become used to it,” Dr. William Walsh, Chief of Nurseries and Interim Division Chief of Neonatology at Vanderbilt University's Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital said. “The most common is the oxycodone which is pretty short acting.”
Other women give birth to babies dependent on Xanax, diazepam, clonazepam, methadone and codeine.
The babies can suffer from fever, seizures, vomiting, hyperactive reflexes and inability to feed, among other problems.
The symptoms are much like the withdrawal an adult would suffer.
“It used to be that heroin was the most common drug we saw withdrawal from, but not anymore,” Dr. Walsh said. “The (NAS) part of the substance abuse problem is really just the tip of the iceberg.”
According to the Department of Health, the problem has increased by nearly 10-fold over the past ten years with East Tennessee being the hardest hit right now.
However, health officials are seeing the drug problem spread from east Tennessee into Middle and west Tennessee.
The Department of Children Services investigates cases of children born dependent on drugs.
The department is creating advisory boards and committees to not only monitor the spread of drug dependent babies being born, but also come up with ways to prevent prescription drug abuse.
In east Tennessee, DCS has placed case workers in hospitals because there is a high rate of drug dependent babies born in that part of the state.
According to the Department of Health, 25 percent of the 294 drug dependent babies born in Tennessee so far this year are in east Tennessee.
“There has been an explosion in Tennessee,” DCS Commissioner Jim Henry said. “Sixty percent of the children we took into custody in Knoxville are drug exposed babies.”
He continued, “It seems like the drugs move right down I-40; they start in upper east Tennessee and they go right into Memphis.”
Commissioner Henry said the cost of handling the prescription drug problem and its effects will cost Tennesseans millions of dollars.
“The amount of resources this is consuming is very difficult to handle,” he said. “You want to spend your resources on trying to get jobs into the state and to better people's education but all the extra money that we have is being dried up with putting people in jail or trying to correct this problem.”
More than $200 million in additional funding was dedicated to local jails and prisons to incarcerate criminals in next year's budget.
The state has changed laws in an effort to better track babies born drug dependent.
Starting January 1, 2013 doctors are required to notify the Tennessee Department of Health when they deliver babies who are suffering from NAS.
The information is then tracked by county, gender and how the mother got the drugs.
No identifying information is included in the report and the report does not automatically mean DCS will be notified.
Also this month, the Safe Harbor Act of 2013 became law. The law allows a pregnant woman who has drug abuse issues to seek and stay in treatment for addiction without the fear of losing their child.
The Tennessee Medical Association advocated for the law.
If the woman's doctor determines that before the end of the 20th week of pregnancy that she is abusing prescription drugs and putting her unborn child in danger, the doctor must encourage the mother to seek counseling, treatment and other assistance that is available.
In turn, if the woman begins drug treatment before her next doctor's appointment, does what her treatment program recommends and continues prenatal care, the DCS cannot try to take custody of the baby.
That is as long as there are not other factors not related to the prescription drug abuse.
DCS can still attempt to take custody of a baby if the department determines that the child is not being properly cared for by the mother or caregiver.