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Public Schools Need to Prepare for Opiod Cohort… Or Dig a Little Deeper to Offer Support

December 20, 2017

The opiod crisis that is sweeping our nation has one long-term consequence that has been ignored, perhaps because the “crack baby” scare of the 1990s was oversold, but more likely because it is easier to ignore a pending crisis than it is to face it.

Our local newspaper, the Valley News, had an AP article by Michael Casey that reported that 10% of the children born at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center faced complications from opiods. The article noted a marked increase in the number of infants suffering from a drug-related condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS. Mr. Casey reported on how NAS is on the rise in New Hampshire:

Those babies are often born premature and underweight, and their mothers’ drug use increases their risk for exposure to hepatitis and HIV.

Infants diagnosed with NAS also remained in the hospital for 12 days, compared to three days for other newborns.

The University of New Hampshireand New Futures Kids Count found the number of infants diagnosed with the condition has gone from 52 in 2005 to 269 in 2015. That’s consistent with the nationwide trend, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a 2016 report , the agency found that rates of NAS increased 300 percent nationwide from 1999 to 2013, with the highest rates in West Virginia, Maine and Vermont, which reported more than 30 cases per 1,000 births.

Nearly 24.4 of every 1,000 babies in the Granite State were diagnosed with NAS in 2015.

“I expected to see a rise in neonatal abstinence syndrome because I’ve heard in the news about the rise in opioid use and opioid drug deaths,” said Kristin Smith, a family demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH and the report’s author.

This reminds me of the reports our district read about “crack babies” in the 1990s… but the wave of problem children we anticipated never occurred. As it turns out, the anticipated problems never materialized because the data used to forecast this “epidemic” was too limited: it was based on a study of 23 infants and blown out of proportion. THIS “epidemic”, however, is based on widespread collections of data and appears to be more grounded in hard evidence. Mr. Casey’s indicates that there IS a means of limiting the problems children might occur when they enter school IF intervention happens at an early point:

The good news is that the condition is treatable and that hospitals, according to the report, are responding with programs that wean newborns off the drugs and help their recovery with cuddling programs and efforts to increase skin-to-skin contact.

There is also a greater emphasis to help the pregnant moms get off drugs, including a program dedicated to mothers in recovery that was started four years ago at Dartmouth Hitchcock. Offering treatment and mental health services, the report said, has been found to reduce the numbers of babies needing treatment.

The report points out that the state needs to do a better job of responding to the needs of these woman, which means more treatment and support services for them and state policies that aren’t solely focused on punishing the addict.

But here’s the rub: if we as a society continue to view addiction as a moral failure instead of a disease we will not apply the resources needed to treatment and instead use resources to incarcerate individuals whose moral failings need to be redressed. And if we continue to limit treatments to “X” number of days in rehab or “X” dollars of services we will be condemning a generation of babies born with addictions to a lifetime of misery. We should find the money needed for the treatment and support services even if it requires us to dig a little deeper in our pockets. We should act out of compassion for those who suffer from addiction instead of responding with anger.

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