Umbilical Cord Could Provide Earlier Signs of NAS

By McCarton Ackerman 07/23/15

Despite its effectiveness, testing a newborn's umbilical cord raises ethical issues.

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It's well-known that early detection is the key to treating addiction, but a recent study takes that principle to a whole new level by suggesting that a child's umbilical cord could indicate if they were born with a drug problem.

The findings from Utah-based reference laboratory ARUP show that testing umbilical cords is a fast and viable method to detect addiction. Though still new, the practice has already produced valuable data for doctors. Medical Daily reported that marijuana is the most common drug affecting infants, followed by opioids and prescription painkillers.

Gwen McMillin, a medical director at the Clinical Toxicology Laboratories at ARUP, explained that the symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) depend on the type of drug the mother used, the amount consumed, and length of use. Babies with NAS often suffer from physiological withdrawal symptoms that include diarrhea, seizures, and hyperactive reflexes.

However, Robert Montenegro of Big Think pointed out that testing umbilical cords for drug use poses potential ethical issues. Testing newborns for NAS does not require the consent of the mother.

“The discovery of illicit drugs in the umbilical cord can be deemed abuse and get the baby turned over to social services,” wrote Montenegro. “On one hand, the test could be construed an invasion of privacy. On the other, it's important that mothers who might have been up to no good while pregnant can't resist the test, thus putting their child at major risk.”

McMillin insisted the testing wasn't designed to punish mothers who use drugs, but rather to get them "the care and support they need through rehab and social services so they can take care of their children."

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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.