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More newborns battling drug addiction

By Meredith Machen, mmachen@wcyb.com
Published On: May 13 2013 04:49:30 PM CDT
Updated On: May 13 2013 05:00:00 PM CDT

There's a growing drug addiction problem in our region, and that addiction starts before birth.

KINGSPORT, Tenn. -

There's a growing drug addiction problem in our region, and that addiction starts before birth.

We're learning the number of newborns in Tennessee born addicted to drugs is soaring. News 5 took a look at the sobering statistics Monday.

Babies may be the picture of innocence, but more than you might think are fighting serious adult addictions.

Nurse practitioner Kelli West told us neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is becoming an everyday problem in neonatal intensive care units. "It's a condition that babies have when mothers have been taking medication or other substances. The babies will withdrawal from those," said West.

West said she mostly sees babies addicted to subutex, a drug that helps wean people off of narcotics. For babies just days old, it means fighting serious pain. "Their weight gain is slower. They have things like skin excoriation, colic, they can have fever, they can even have seizures," West added.

We learned nurses will often have to use morphine to help prevent these babies form going into further withdrawal and to help with excruciating pain and irritability.

Nurses caring for these newborns told us the babies can hardly sleep. "You feel so helpless at time, because all we can do is comfort them by rocking swaddling and talking to them," said Dana Hamilton, a registered nurse in Holston Valley Medical Center's NICU.   

Unfortunately, the statistics are staggering.

At Holston Valley Medical Center, we learned 20 to 50 percent of all NICU babies battle NAS, and the numbers are growing every year in Tennessee.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, there were 55 NAS cases in 1999, 174 in 2005, 525 in 2010, and 672 NAS cases reported in 2011.

Nurses hope by collaborating with hospitals across the state treatments become more defined. "We do share information within the state for best practices to figure out what works best for these babies," said West.

There's hope with outreach, those numbers can be turned around. "As a community, we need to recognize the problem and try to intervene, and try to get people educated," said Hamilton.

We also found out East Tennessee Children's Hospital in Knoxville is on the front lines of this NAS crisis by developing tool kits to send to hospitals across the nation on how to best treat babies born addicted to drugs.