CONCORD, N.H. — Babies in New Hampshire are increasingly paying a price for their parent’s drug addiction, with rising numbers of newborns suffering from a condition that causes symptoms ranging from tremors to breathing problems.
A new report released Tuesday found that the state’s opioid crisis has led to a five-fold increase over the past decade in the numbers of newborns suffering from a drug-related condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS.
The University of New Hampshire and 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 had 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 state were diagnosed with NAS in 2015. Babies diagnosed with NAS remained in the hospital for 12 days, compared to three days for other newborns.
“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.
“However, these numbers are very striking,” she said. “What I’m trying to do is shine a spotlight on the multiple consequences epidemic in New Hampshire.”
New Hampshire has been one of the states hardest hit by the drug crisis, with the skyrocketing numbers of opioid overdoses blamed on liberal prescription practices, underfunded and scarce treatment options and the state’s proximity to the drug supply chain.
The state’s death rate due to synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, increased by nearly 1,600 percent from 2010 to 2015 and only now is starting to level off. This year, the state estimates there will be 466 overdose deaths — slightly lower than the 485 in 2016
As a result of the widespread abuse of opioids, more addicted mothers from New Hampshire and even Vermont are showing up at places like Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the state’s largest hospital system.
Dr. Alison Volpe Holmes, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock who was not part of the report, estimates the facility sees upward 125 babies born there with NAS every year — twice the rate five years ago.
Babies exposed to opioids by their mother’s use during pregnancy can go through an agonizing withdrawal. Among the symptoms are tremors in the arms and legs, and difficulty sleeping. Such babies are often born premature and underweight, and their mothers’ drug use increases their risk for exposure to hepatitis and HIV.
“Our rates are significantly higher than the state as a whole,” said Volpe Holmes, who said 10 percent of the hospital’s newborns are diagnosed with NAS. “This is almost a daily condition in our newborn nursery.”
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. The hope is this could help reduce the fear that often makes these women reluctant to seek treatment over concerns they would lose their baby.
“New Hampshire must enact policies to support mothers in recovery and their babies,” said Michele Merritt, senior vice president at New Futures.