Kentucky Grapples With Rise In NAS Babies

By McCarton Ackerman 09/24/14

Neonatal units have seen a sharp increase in babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

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The alarming increase in babies being treated for neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in Kentucky has led to medical professionals in the state calling it both an epidemic and a public health crisis.

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital has discharged 204 babies with NAS so far this year, up from 130 in 2012. Approximately 955 babies throughout the state were hospitalized in 2013, a huge spike from just 67 babies in 2001. Both the Kentucky Perinatal Association and the state's Department for Public Health have begun working together to create a best practices guideline for treating NAS.

The symptoms for babies suffering from NAS include dehydration, tremors, stiffness, and even seizures. They have typically stayed at the hospital receiving care for 20 days, but their stays can exceed 30 days depending on the response to treatment. Cost is also an issue since at least 80% of the medical fees are paid through Medicaid and can reach as high as $60,000. However, the biggest problem many of these newborns face is when they leave the hospital.

"I can make them comfortable. I can give them the medications, but what's really important is that you have to treat the families,” said Henrietta Bada, a neurologist at the hospital. "The baby has to go home to a safe home. Babies have to go home to a mother that is capable of taking care of him or her."

It isn’t just illicit substances that are affecting these babies. Wynemia Hale was prescribed Subutex during her pregnancy to help treat her addiction, but her newborn suffered from NAS as a result of the medication despite being informed that the effects would be minimal.

But many addicted mothers aren’t even able to get these prescriptions due to the General Assembly passing House Bill 1 in 2012, which has made it more difficult for drug abusers to gain access to prescription medication. As a result, some have turned to heroin as their drug of choice.

"We need better treatment options for the pregnant mothers who have a legitimate medical reason to be on these types of medications,” said Eric Reynolds, a neonatologist at Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville. "It's not only illicit substances. Sometimes it's moms who have a real medical problem that they need to be treated and the side effect is that the baby has to go through this, too."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.