Pittsburgh Hospital Deals With ‘Explosion’ Of Opioid Dependent Babies

May 5, 2016

Volunteer "cuddler" Donna Comfort (left) holds an opioid-dependent baby as she talks with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA, center) and fellow cuddler Nancy Stebler.
Credit UPMC Magee Women's Hospital

In a quiet, dimly-lit room of UPMC's Magee-Women's Hospital in Oakland, volunteer "cuddler" Donna Comfort held a tiny newborn in her arms. The baby was one of at least five in the hospital born dependent on heroin, prescription painkillers, addiction treatment medication or another form of opioid.

Though this particular baby slept quietly, newborns with opioid dependencies are typically much noisier and more tense than other babies, according to doctors at Magee. They need to be cuddled consistently to be calmed.

The room where Comfort and the baby rocked in an armchair was built specifically to accommodate the growing number of pregnant women and babies dependent on opioids, said Magee doctors. And in a small office, about 40 to 50 pregnant women are given weekly prescriptions of buprenorphine, an addiction treatment drug.

Richard Beigi, the hospital's chief medical officer, estimated that at least 4 to 7 percent of pregnant women in western Pennsylvania are addicted to opioids. But he said the actual rate could be higher due to a perceived stigma of self-reporting opioid use among pregnant women.

"This is a huge problem, and we’ve seen an explosion in the last few years,” Beigi said.

Dr. Jennifer Kloesz, who directs Magee’s neonatal intensive care unit, said babies with “neonatal abstinence syndrome” can be kept in the NICU anywhere from a week to more than two months. Kloesz said drug-dependent babies are more likely to be born pre-term, and they’re often smaller and more irritable than other babies.

“We know that a lot of these babies are born with microcephaly," Kloesz said. "That’s a big deal right now when we talk about the Zika virus. We’re seeing the same thing with some of these drug-exposed babies, so they have small heads and small brains because of that, and that really affects their development.”

A November 2015 law sponsored by U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) requires the federal Department of Health and Human Services to finish a broad study of the scope of opioid dependence in babies and pregnant women in about a year.

Casey said the law requires the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin helping states collect statistics on opioid dependence in babies and pregnant women.

“That’s one of the main problems at the state level, is that we don’t have enough data," Casey said. "We have a lot of Medicaid data, but we don’t have a lot of data beyond Medicaid.”