• Article
  • April 20, 2016

The Effects of the Nation's Drug Epidemic

How the nationʼs drug epidemic has far-reaching impact on the smallest victims.

By Amanda Bertholf

After I read a first draft of this issue's cover story, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. The topic of babies born dependent on drugs is heavy, intense and sad. It's also a prevalent issue, and it seems to come up any time I ask colleagues for ideas for the magazine. When you look at the numbers, it's not hard to see why—the statistics are staggering. According to JAMA, the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) tripled from 2000 and 2009, and the number continues to increase as more Americans become dependent on opioids.

To understand the effect of the opioid epidemic on newborns, it helps to see the bigger picture and the effect on adults: In 2014, 1.9 million Americans had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. While opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, they can be misused, taken in a different way or in greater quantity, or without a prescription.

Appropriate use, even as prescribed, can produce dependence. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, doctors wrote 76 million prescriptions for painkillers in 1991. By 2011, that number had nearly tripled to 219 million. This, along with several other factors, has created a broad "environmental availability" of opioid analgesics.

If there's any good news in this situation, it's the consensus that something needs to be done to curb the opioid epidemic. Children's hospitals are helping the smallest victims. Team members—who went into neonatology not expecting to deal with addiction—are doing their part by developing new care protocols for babies with NAS. The results of this work includes shorter lengths of stay and care that involve the family in non-pharmacological interventions. This leads to not only better care for the baby, but also helps families bond.