West Virginia Struggles With 'Epidemic' of Drug-Addicted Mothers

By McCarton Ackerman 08/06/14

The Mountain State has seen a drastic number of pregnant addicts that far surpasses the national average.

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With more drug-addicted mothers in West Virginia than ever before, several hospitals throughout the state have labeled the problem an epidemic.

Nationwide figures from 2009 show that 3 out of 1,000 pregnant women are addicted to drugs, but that number has been considerably higher in hospitals throughout West Virginia. Last year, 139 out of 1,000 pregnant women at Cabell Huntington Hospital were addicted to drugs. Many of the women in clinics throughout the state are prescribed Subutex, which helps reduce the symptoms of opiate dependence.

But David Chaffin, an OB-GYN specializing in maternal fetal medicine and a professor at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University, was quick to point out that using Subutex didn’t erase the chance of potential complications to a newborn baby. Getting clean before giving birth doesn’t guarantee that an infant will no longer be addicted to a drug, but children born to mothers using Subutex spend an average of one week less in the hospital than those who go untreated. Approximately 25% of those born to drug-addicted mothers are able to leave the hospital soon after giving birth.

However, medically supervised withdrawal programs for pregnant women are a rarity in the state. “We have to have more treatment. There are only, like, three places in the whole state that will take these pregnant women and children, and a couple won’t even accept them if they’re on the Subutex,” said Michelle Kosa, a social worker in the Charleston area. “There’s an outpatient center in Beckley, but there are only 12 beds there.”

Both Chaffin and Kosa said they are opposed to Tennessee’s new law that makes it a crime to give birth to a drug-addicted baby, which means new mothers could face jail time for child abuse. Even though such a law doesn’t exist in West Virginia, the stigma of drug use results in many addicted mothers, fearful of receiving negative judgment at best and legal consequences at worst, being unwilling to ask for help.

“This disease becomes amenable to treatments and improvement only when you get past the judgmental bias,” said Chaffin. “If you imagine yourself fasting for 24 hours, your need for food rivals what an opiate addict feels when they’re withdrawing. Unless you can get past the moral judgment you attach to these women, you don’t have a chance of really impacting the problem.”

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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.