Newborns Affected by Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Triple

A condition that causes newborns of substance-addicted mothers to experience withdrawal symptoms is on the rise. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) tripled between 1999 and 2013 in 23 states. In three states – West Virginia, Maine and Vermont – the condition now affects more than 30 infants per 1,000 births. Policymakers have proposed several solutions to address not only NAS but also opioid and heroin abuse, which are common contributors to the condition.

Infants facing neonatal abstinence syndrome can experience seizures and tremors, sweating, vomiting and difficulty feeding. They can also be born prematurely. The growing opioid abuse epidemic is a primary driver of increases in NAS, though alcohol, heroin and other drug abuse can also cause NAS. The condition can also occur, ironically, when mothers take methadone to treat their addiction; the medication eases withdrawal symptoms for addicted mothers but can itself become addictive.

Of the challenges posed by NAS, National Coalition for Infant Health Medical Director Mitchell Goldstein, MD, said, “Our nation’s infants are a vulnerable population, which means we must do everything we can to protect them from preventable health complications, such as neonatal abstinence syndrome. We would hope that no child was ever born exposed or addicted to opioids, but when it happens, we must address this issue in a responsible manner.”

Last year, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) introduced the “Protecting Our Infants Act,” which passed unanimously in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The bill called for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to develop recommendations for preventing and treating prenatal opioid abuse and neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Meanwhile, several policy solutions for addressing opioid abuse have also taken shape:

  • The CDC issued guidelines in March, though they received some criticism for being overly prescriptive and potentially limiting access for patients with pain.
  • The National Pain Strategy combined the input of six federal agencies and 80 experts from across the medical, advocacy and scientific communities to call for better access to care and education and more inclusive coverage policies, among other goals.
  • The National Governors Association issued “A Compact to Fight Opioid Addiction” in July, which identifies the need for health plans to cover comprehensive pain management approaches that include non-opioid alternatives.
  • The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in July, encompasses prevention, recovery and law enforcement measures needed to address opioid abuse.

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