Infant Drug Addiction: ‘Public Health Epidemic’ or Overblown Stigmatization?

In the 1980s and 90s, America witnessed the first infant drug addiction epidemic, better known as the “crack baby” epidemic, in which a large number of children were born to mothers who were addicted to crack cocaine. Although the percentage of “crack babies” who suffered serious disabilities or complications as a result of exposure to the street drug was quite low, the concept of fetuses being exposed to drugs – prescription or street, legal or illegal – is still in existence. In fact, the number of reported infant drug addiction cases has skyrocketed in recent years.

New Study, Old Trends

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of reported infant drug addiction cases increased threefold – from one in every 1,000 infant births to three in every 1,000 – from 2000 to 2009.

The study, published Monday, is the first to measure the frequency of infant drug addiction cases. The lead author, Stephen Patrick of the University of Michigan, estimates that the epidemic results in 13,539 affected newborns each year, or one every hour.

Furthermore, Patrick’s study found that 5.6 of every 1,000 pregnant women abused narcotic painkillers in 2009. Because an estimated 4.5 percent of pregnant women use illegal drugs in the U.S., experts are concerned that the trend will continue to grow.

“The prevalence of drug use among pregnant women hasn’t changed since the early 2000s,” says Andreea Creanga of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But the types of drugs that women are using is changing.”

Prescriptions Resulting in Infant Drug Addiction

Creanga and Patrick, among other experts, believe that the drugs commonly used by pregnant women today account for the increase in infant drug addiction cases. Since neonatal abstinence syndrome – the type of withdrawal present in newborns used in the study – can be caused by illegal opiates, such as heroin, in addition to prescription drugs, it can be hard to determine whether abused prescriptions or street drugs are to blame.

But Patrick believes the surge in addicted newborns can be attributed to the national epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

Arturo Valdez, who runs a substance abuse program in Chicago, says doctors who push painkillers to patients “like candy” are key contributors to the problem. Valdez’s patients include both men and women who are prescribed opiate painkillers for legitimate reasons and find themselves addicted after the prescription runs out.

In some states, mothers of newborns with drug addiction are arrested and then jailed on criminal charges. States like Alabama have laws that subject the mothers to endangering their children, charges similar to those filed against someone for bringing controlled substances onto school grounds.

But Valdez says that stigmatizing a parent over a mental illness like addiction is counterproductive to the problem. Many experts believe the solution needs to come from policymakers and the process of treating pregnant women with addiction problems, rather than jailing them.

What do you think is the best solution to combat the occurrence of infant drug addiction cases in the U.S.? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comment box below. 

Chris Davis
Top-rated, award-winning, attorney practicing wrongful death & serious injury law in Seattle.
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