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W.Va. officials try to get handle on addicted babies

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. – Nationally, more pregnant women than ever are addicted to drugs, but even those increasing numbers don’t come close to what’s happening in West Virginia – where some southern communities are experiencing what’s been called an “epidemic.”

As recently as August 2014, that’s how the West Virginia Hospital Association referred to this growing – and costly – public health problem.

Federal officials don’t disagree, including figures supplied by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, indicating only 1 in 1,000 pregnant women was addicted to drugs in 2003 – a number that had increased to 3 in 1,000 by 2009.

The picture is much worse in some states, including Kentucky and West Virginia, where southern communities represent some of the worst-case scenarios, medical professionals agree.

Dr. David Chaffin is concerned but not particularly surprised by the numbers, because he’s devoted much of his professional career to dealing with these problems.

Chaffin, an OB-GYN who specializes in maternal fetal medicine, continues to be on the frontlines since he practices at Cabell Huntington Hospital and, as perinatal center director, sees firsthand what’s happening with drug-addicted mothers and their babies.

He also heads up the Maternal Addiction and Recovery Center at the Marshall University Medical Center, where he sees drug-addicted mothers and NAS babies on a daily basis. The program provides pre-natal care to drug-addicted pregnant women and addiction treatment using Subutex to help minimize the adverse impacts of opiate dependence, he said.

“There’s an old story about how a frog will jump out of boiling water as soon as you put him in it. But put him in and heat the water slowly, he barely notices – and then it is too late,” Chaffin said in a telephone interview.

“I’m not saying it is too late for us, but we are in really deep, and that’s something that took years to happen,” he said.

A 2009 study showed that nearly one-fifth – or 1 out of 5 – babies in West Virginia was born to women who either used drugs or alcohol while pregnant, Chaffin said.

“The pain pill epidemic hit Appalachia in epidemic proportions compared to the rest of the country,” he said, adding that a federal task force was “terribly concerned” when the national number of drug-addicted pregnant females rose from 1 to 3 per 1,000 individuals.

Today’s numbers tell a different – and much worse – story, Chaffin said.

In 2009, at Cabell Huntington Hospital, the NAS rate was 30 per 1,000 pregnant women who were drug addicts. Compare that to 2013 when the figure rose to 106 pregnant women out of 1,000, he said, adding that there’s been a shift from addiction due to opiates – including heroin – as opposed to pain pills.

Poverty and widespread availability of illegal substances are helping fuel this problem, Chaffin said.

“There, no doubt, a gigantic wave is not just coming at us – it’s already here,” he said.

In nearby Kanawha County, it’s not much different.

According to The Associated Press, Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston is seeing a similar increase – including a weekend in 2013 when eight of the 12 babies born there were addicted to drugs.

Doctors refer to this problem as neonatal abstinence syndrome, which refers to the fact babies were exposed to addictive, illegal or prescription drugs while being carried by their mothers.

That’s also important, because roughly 75 percent of babies born to drug-addicted mothers may spend weeks – or even months – in the hospital being weaned off drugs, according to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012.

Costs are also generally higher because these NAS infants face special, significant health problems that can range from low birth weights to respiratory complications – and these hospital bills are primarily covered by Medicaid, the study states.

“Mean hospital charges for discharges with NAS increased from $39,400 in 2000 to $53,400 in 2009. By 2009, 77.6 percent of charges for NAS were attributed to state Medicaid programs,” it reads.

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