Number of drug dependent babies in parts of WNY on track to double this year

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)-  Hundreds of babies are expected to go through withdrawal this year as the opioid epidemic continues in Erie County.

In the first seven months of 2016, the doctors at Sisters Hospital treated just about the same number of chemically dependent babies, as were treated in all of 2015.

“We have seen our numbers from 2014 to 2015 double, and from 2015 and 2016 to date double,” said Theresa Winner, the neonatal clinical nurse specialist.

Winner told News 4 that in 2014 fewer than 100 babies were diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or drug dependent, in the Catholic Health system.

In 2015, that grew to about 200 babies. Forty of those children required treatment with morphine.

By July, 2016 Catholic Health doctors treated 39 babies.

“I do think our opioid epidemic in the Western New York is showing through with our patients,” said Winner. “We know that more and more people who have chemical dependence are within childbearing years and are females.”

Winner said babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome can’t self sooth, sleep as little as four hours a day, and face a number of other complications.

“They’re frantic or become very stiff and hypertonic,” said Winner. “Oftentimes they’ll have rub marks on their face, their knees, and their elbows from trying to comfort themselves against the linen.”

She said withdrawal can last days, weeks, even months.

“It’s entirely dependent on the substance they were exposed to,” said Winner.

She told News 4 they’ve seen an increase in babies dependent on opioids including heroin, Lortab and hydrocodone.

About a quarter of the patients have been prescribed the medications for routine medical conditions but the rest are link to addiction, according to Winner.

She told us they watch for symptoms in the baby to see if the child is chemically dependent too. They also try to get a toxicology for mothers who have risk factors.

“If mom does not consent to a urine toxicology then we look at her risk factors, in terms of obtaining a urine toxicology on the baby,” said Winner.

A state senator wants to require all babies to be tested for neonatal abstinence syndrome right after they’re born.

Senator Cathy Young represents the 57th district. The latest statistics from the NYS Department of Health show from 2012 to 2014 the number of babies diagnosed as chemically dependent grew by 25 percent.

“These are the tiniest victims of the heroin crisis,” said Young. “I want to make sure these babies get the help they need right away. It will save lives it will actually save costs down the road in terms of treating these newborns as they grow up.”

Young told News 4 there are other required tests for newborns in New York State and this could be done at the same time. She doesn’t have figures for how much it would cost but said the state should reimburse hospitals for the tests.

Her bill didn’t make it out of committee last year but she said it’s her top priority when the legislative session starts in 2017.

“We have gotten some push back from people who feel mothers could be prosecuted for using drugs during their pregnancy,” said Young. That’s not the intention of the bill.”

Winner told us the idea has positive aspects, but also drawbacks.

“I think it would help us from some perspective to test all babies but really I think what we have to look at is the mom and baby as a unit,” said Winner. “If we’re going to rest all babies it would be great if our governing agencies would say this is just a standard of care that we should test all moms as well.”

Winner told News 4, however, that a required test may deter some women from seeking help. In states like Tennessee, these kinds of tests have been used to prosecute mothers, she said.

The Vice President of Substance Use Disorder for Lakeshore Behavioral Health, Kelly Whitman, said no mother wants to put their baby through addiction but getting help can be a difficult decision.

“A lot of mothers are in fear,” said Whitman. “The ones that do come and are not already having law enforcement involved, a lot of them fear CPS will be called so there’s sometimes some hesitation to get linked to the hospital.”

News 4 met Whitman at a residential rehab facility in Buffalo, called the Lighthouse. About a third of the women they treat are pregnant mothers.

“We have seen an increase in woman with opiate addictions,” said Whitman. We have a lot of the mothers come to us pregnant, if they’re not already linked with Subutex maintenance medication treatment, we assist with linking them to that.”

The National Institute of Drug Abuse recognizes Subutex as a safe treatment for pregnant mothers who are dealing with addiction.

Whitman told News 4 the women also go through extensive therapy.

It’s a six to nine month program and after mothers give birth, their baby can live with them at the facility.

“It’s important for women to know there is help available for pregnant women and parenting women,” said Whitman.

The goal for the Lighthouse, and physicians, is to help the mothers and babies get through their rough start together, and be successful as a family.

“We know that moms and dads who are empowered to take care of their babies, and are helped to do that, are more likely to have less remissions with chemical use,” said Winner.

Here are a list of places you, or someone you know, can seek treatment:

The Lighthouse – Residential Substance Abuse Treatment for Pregnant and Parenting Women

Margaret A. Stutzman Addiction Treatment Center

Catholic Health Addiction Services 

Horizon Health Services Women’s Services

Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services

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