The number of babies born in the US suffering from drug withdrawal — known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS — increased five-fold from 2000 to 2012, according to research just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Both cities and rural areas have seen dramatic increases in drug-addicted newborns, but rates in rural areas are growing faster than urban ones. The JAMA report is the first to compare growth of rural vs. urban rates. Previous studies found that babies suffering from NAS born outside of cities constituted roughly 13 percent of all infants, but by 2012 the number had risen to 21 percent. The overall incidence of babies in withdrawal born in rural areas was found to be 7.5 per 1,000 live hospital births, and in urban areas it's 4.8 per 1,000.
Babies born with NAS are extremely expensive for hospitals to care for because they require NICU monitoring. Their treatment is estimated to cost about $1.5 billion a year. Of course, costs are less shocking than the harrowing experience and symptoms that newborns must undergo. Think of all the bad things about drug withdrawal — shivers, anxiety, sweats, diarrhea, runny noses, seizures — in addition to being a brand new human being. These babies are more likely to have respiratory problems than babies who are born without the burden of addiction. In the short term, babies going through withdrawal are fussy and hard to soothe, but are usually fully recovered in anywhere from five to 30 days if they are in a supportive hospital. But many of these babies, of course, have mothers who are addicted to opioids themselves, so the road ahead for them is likely to be anything but easy.