Mothers passing painkiller addiction to newborns
Published Monday, February 20, 2012 9:57PM EST
The exploding problem of addiction to prescription painkillers has hit the maternity ward, doctors say.
Experts are reporting that mothers are among the increasing number of Canadians who are becoming dependent on opiates such as OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan, and when they become pregnant, their babies inherit their addiction.
The drug travels from mother to baby through the placenta.
Doctors and nurses must spend weeks helping addicted newborns get through the agony of withdrawal -- aid that can include administering tapered doses of morphine to ease symptoms.
"It is quite unpleasant and can be somewhat dangerous even to the babies to go through withdrawal," Dr. Sandra Seigel of St. Joseph's HealthCare in Hamilton, Ont., told CTV News.
"In extremes, the worst manifestation of withdrawal, or one of the worst, is that they actually can have a seizure if they go through withdrawal and we don't catch it and we don't watch it and we don't monitor it."
Siegel said babies suffering from withdrawal can also be plagued by tremors, and can have difficulties feeding due to vomiting and diarrhea, which can affect their growth and overall health.
The number of addicted babies turning up in neonatal units has skyrocketed in recent years. In Ontario, doctors estimate that the number of newborn addicts has tripled in less than a decade.
"This is an increasing problem and an important problem, and a problem that has not been on the radar for the public," Dr. Siegel said.
The growing problem of prescription painkiller addiction has led the Ontario government to remove OxyContin and its replacement, OxyNeo, from the list of drugs it routinely funds.
Siegel said some women have been prescribed the opiates for pain, while others are taking the drug illicitly.
Amanda Perry, who is eight months pregnant, is in a treatment program after she became addicted to painkillers after the birth of her son four years ago. She is expecting a boy, and he will be cared for as he goes through withdrawal at St. Joseph's.
"I know how it feels, and to see him go through that is going to hurt," Perry told CTV.
"I know they have a good program here, and I know that they will take care of him. That makes me feel a lot better."
More research is needed to determine how best to wean a newborn from drugs, but current treatment strategies include swaddling, cuddling and frequent feeds. The babies may also be treated with morphine to control symptoms.
Experts are also looking at prevention strategies that target young women and their physicians before that first prescription gets filled.
Social worker Jodi Pereira said ad campaigns targeted at high school and university aged women will highlight the need for extreme caution when prescribing powerful painkillers to females of childbearing age.
They are also urging hospitals to develop screening programs to detect substance abuse among expectant mothers, as well as to monitor at-risk babies for symptoms of withdrawal.
Seventeen-month-old Ilijanna spent her first few weeks of life at St. Joseph's being treated for her in utero addiction to OxyContin. Her mother, Danielle Bilbija, was addicted to the drug but is now clean.
She says it would have been "extremely stressful" to have tried to help her daughter through withdrawal without professional help.
"I don't know how my daughter would have gone through withdrawal," she said. "I don't know how I would have done it on my own."
With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip