Growing number of newborns 'hooked' on heroin

I-TEAM: Duval Co. leads state for babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM, Travis Anthony - Photojournalist

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Their cries are a higher pitch than that of a healthy newborn. Babies born with heroin or other opioids in their systems, immediately go into withdrawal their first moments of life – and it’s painful. The moment the umbilical cord is cut, so is the heroin supply.

It's called neonatal abstinence syndrome. This means that during a mother’s pregnancy, drugs pass through the mother’s placenta to the womb, and the babies become just as dependent on the drug as their mothers.

Every 25 minutes in the United States, a baby comes into this world "hooked" on opioids. It’s a growing problem in our area – in fact, Jacksonville now leads the state with the most babies born suffering with drugs in their system.

Recovering addict’s story

“I tried to quit at least three or five times during my pregnancy. For me, I couldn't get sick, I couldn't miss work withdrawing. Anytime I had enough money to get a bag, my brain was there before my body," explained a recovering heroin addict, who we’ll call “Sarah.”

Sarah says she now regrets getting high on heroin while pregnant, and while she doesn’t want to release her real identity, she wants her story heard in the hopes of helping other addicted mothers by exposing the grueling process of weaning a newborn off of drugs.

She says she was a fully functioning heroin addict, who every morning, afternoon and evening snorted the drug throughout her pregnancy. She spent $80 a day on the opioid -- all fully aware she was sacrificing her unborn son's health. Sarah explains the heroin addiction was stronger than the bond with her unborn baby. And at the same time, her first born was put at risk, as well.

“I would go away from my child and use heroin in the bathroom, and I would come back in, cook, clean do the laundry, do bedtime stories. That was my normal way of living," she admitted to the I-TEAM. "Nobody knew I was using, I went to all my doctors’ appointments."

Sarah's deep dark secret was exposed the moment her second son was born. He was full term, but underweight and inconsolable. Doctors ran tests, knowing something wasn't right. After receiving the results, Sarah learned about the heart-wrenching process of weaning her newborn off heroin.    

“I cried all the time, staring at him, knowing there is nothing I could do to fix it,” she said. “It's very painful to know that I did that to my child because I couldn't quit, he had to hurt for me."

Effects on a baby

A newborn goes through physical withdrawals from heroin just like an adult -- which often results in trembling, crying, vomiting, increased muscle tone and even seizures. No amount of swaddling, holding or rocking can soothe these babies. Instead, they are given morphine in small dosages that slowly taper off.

Dr. Samarth Shukla is with the Division of Neoantology at UF Health, and works inside the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He says addicted mothers don't fully understand the effects of their own selfishness.

“It's painful for them. When you see them with increased irritability, we are not able to console them, they cannot feed well, they have problems with weight gain, sweating, so it’s very stressful for babies," he explained.

Far too often, newborns aren't just exposed to heroin, the pregnant addicts are often also alcoholics, taking prescription painkillers and experimenting with other drugs.

Doctors say these innocent babies will likely suffer long term neurological problems, and nearly 1 in 10 can expect to suffer from Hepatitis C in their lifetimes. They also have a greater chance of becoming a drug addict later in life.

”Babies that have been exposed to drugs in their early life eventually are at high risk for being drug dependent. They can be drug users in the future," said Shukla.

The addiction doesn't end with the taxing treatment for these newborns. Developmental delays can haunt a baby addicted to heroin for life.

By the numbers

The rate at which babies have been born with neonatal abstinence syndrome has quadrupled over the past 15 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The highest numbers of affected babies are in Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Tennessee, and right here in Florida.

“The incidents of drug use among pregnant moms has been significantly increasing,” explained Shukla.

The problem is the worst right here in Duval County. According to UF Health's records, in 2014, 121 babies were treated for neonatal abstinence syndrome. In 2015, that number jumped to 165 babies treated. And so far this year, 137 babies have been born suffering with withdrawal.

Those are just UF Health's numbers. As for all of Duval County, Florida statistics show a bigger problem.

For every 10,000 live births in 2011-2013, Duval County had 450 heroin addicted babies, followed by Hillsborough County with 324, Pasco County with 256, Brevard County with 231, and Volusia County with 201 babies born with heroin in their bodies.

The average hospital stay for a drug addicted baby is 18 days and the cost of treating babies born addicted is 15 to 16 times higher than that of a healthy baby.

Nationally, caring for these innocent victims rose to $1.5 billion, according to the latest statistics.

“We have been spending more than a billion dollars each year behind treatment for this condition which is a major part, completely preventable condition, in our unit the numbers are coming up,” said Shukla.

A reason for the rise

The number of babies born with heroin in their systems has been increasing since 2011. It follows the pill mill crackdown ordered by Florida’s Attorney General.

One pill mill that was shut down in Orange Park. When it and others were raided, heroin became the drug of choice. The reason: it’s cheaper -- about $10 a hit -- and easy to get locally.

RELATED: Jacksonville sees spike in heroin use, increase in overdoses

Help available

One of the main reasons why Sarah wanted to share her story with the I-TEAM is because she was unaware of all the resources in our community.

"You don't have to deal with that pain anymore. Anyone who's addicted knows you have to constantly chase the high. There are options. I never knew a detox existed or a rehab existed," she said.

Sarah is being treated at Gateway Community Services right now, which also allows for her children to live with her onsite while she's getting the help she needs.

It's important that if you are pregnant and doing heroin, you don't do this alone. Research shows that if you try to stop cold turkey, it could be harmful – even deadly -- to your unborn baby. Help is available:

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