The Sad and Overwhelming Tune of Opioid Lullabies

What's the best way to combat the rise in rural babies born addicted?

The cries of infants born dependent on drugs can be heard across the country. But, rural areas hear them the loudest.

The rural regions of the country suffer the greatest when it comes to NAS (neonatal abstinence syndrome). This syndrome is caused by a mother using certain drugs during pregnancy. Recent reports reveal that opioid use in particular is on the rise among pregnant women, causing a spike in NAS incidents. Newborns with NAS may suffer from breathing problems, irritability, seizures and difficulty feeding.

The reports also reveal that these incidents are increasing at an alarming rate in rural areas. Rural hospitals saw a sevenfold increase in infants born dependent on drugs from 2004 to 2013. In stark contrast, urban hospitals saw a fourfold increase. One study found that maternal opioid use was nearly 70 percent higher in rural counties than urban ones.

Why the Rising Numbers?

A baby pacifier hanging on a tree branchSome point to a lack of access to much-needed resources in these areas. Treatment both before and during pregnancy simply isn’t as accessible in rural locations. Dr. Anne Johnson, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Vermont, points to another likely culprit: Shame.

“It affects their ability to come forward for treatment,” said Johnston. Her program is designed to be nonjudgmental, in hopes of bringing women “out of the woodwork.”

The stigma of addiction often makes pregnant women hesitant to ask for help. As they shy away from treatment, both mom and baby suffer. Yet, the shame of admitting they’re addicted and how they've put their babies at risk often outweighs any lure of treatment. These moms realize they've made unhealthy choices, and it’s really tough to look in the faces of healthcare workers, case workers and family members to admit it.

In an effort to suppress that shame, they don’t seek the help they need.

What’s the Secret to Success?

To prevent these numbers from growing, we must address the heart of the matter. These moms need care. As hospitals devote more and more resources to caring for infants with NAS, it’s important to also focus on their mothers. Addressing their health issues is key.

It’s important to note that not all of these moms are abusing painkillers and heroin. Some are taking methadone or buprenorphine to treat an opioid addiction.

If we can get women the health care they desperately need, we should start seeing a change in these statistics. Based on current trends, new solutions should ideally focus on things like:

  • Access: Ensuring rural areas have access to treatment.
  • Shame: Removing the stigma of receiving treatment.
  • Usage: Reducing drug use (both prescription and abuse) among pregnant women.

 
As we address these women’s health concerns, we ensure both mom and baby get the help they need to live healthy, happy lives.

Image Source: iStock

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