Littlest victims of the opioid crisis

At the front of the battle of the opioid crisis, there’s a large number of small victims who are a part of it without a choice; babies that are born to mothers who are using during their pregnancy resulting in neonatal abstinence syndrome. Mothers who are using during their pregnancy often hide it from their doctors because they’re embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid that their child will be taken away from them.

The number of babies born suffering from NAS is on the rise. The Canadian Institute for Health Information has seen a steady increase since they started keeping statistics on the subject in 2012.  They released that between April 2016 and March 31, 2017, 1,846 babies were admitted to the hospital because their mothers used during their pregnancy; these numbers don’t include Quebec. More than half of the cases, 988, were in Ontario.

Withdrawal symptoms can appear soon after birth, and while it’s normal for a baby to cry, it’s not normal to hear a newborn with a high pitched cry. Symptoms can also include jitters, sweating, a lack of appetite, sneezing, coughing, an elevated heart rate and body temperature. While it’s easy to make the connection that these are withdrawal symptoms occurring in an adult user, it’s much harder with a baby who can’t speak. In some cases, mothers don’t realize that their babies are suffering either. It’s not until they take them to the emergency room and admit that they’ve used opioids during their pregnancy that the connection is made that their child is suffering from withdrawals.

A baby is treated for their addiction by being prescribed Morphine; the dosage is based on how harsh the addiction is. Addiction recovery can take anywhere from four days to eight weeks. The Morphine is then decreased over time until all of the symptoms are gone. These babies require constant care, sometimes parents aren’t always available to be with their newborns when they’re needed. If treatment isn’t provided soon after birth it can cause early development problems and stunt growth. It doesn’t stop there though – hospitals continue to track the baby for another 18 months.

In Vancouver, BC, one of the epicenters of the opioid crisis in Canada, the Fir Square Combined Care Unit at the B.C. Women’s Hospital & Health Centre has the first single unit in Canada to deal solely with women who use substances and their newborns who are displaying withdrawals. Unfortunately, due to the rising numbers in NAS cases hospitals are struggling to be able to combat and manage it all. Health Care systems are struggling to keep up with the need for more hospital beds, pediatricians, and nurses.

Are you currently pregnant and are using opioids or have you recently given birth and suspect that your newborn is suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome? Talk to your doctor or visit your nearest emergency room.