More W.Va. Babies Are Born Addicted, Children of Mothers Using OxyContin, Meth, Methadone Are Born in Withdrawal



West Virginia, and particularly its southern counties, is struggling with an increase in births of babies addicted to methamphetamine and OxyContin.

Even more common, at least in the Charleston area, are babies born to mothers who are receiving medical doses of methadone – also an addictive drug – to try and get over their other drug addictions.

Doctors still are trying to figure out the long-term effects of such substances on newborns, but the short-term side effects seem to be even worse than problems seen with the so-called “crack babies” born in the 1980s, doctors said.

The effects of methamphetamine on the tiniest of patients are even more challenging for physicians to figure out.

“It’s really hard to separate all the different effects,” said Dr. Stefan Maxwell, chief of neonatology for Charleston Area Medical Center’s Women and Children’s Hospital. “Most of these people are party drug users. If they use one, they’re using others.”

Maxwell and his team of obstetricians have seen increased numbers of babies born to mothers addicted to the newly trendy and deadly drugs over the past several years.

With the rise in use of heroin and other opiates among West Virginians, and the appearance of methadone clinics in the state that try to wean users off such drugs, more and more women are getting pregnant while still in the throes of their addiction, Maxwell said.

The difference between pregnant women who use various types of drugs is that while cocaine users might pass on health problems to their babies, the infants are not born going through withdrawal.

Babies born to cocaine-addicted mothers are small and often have a host of physical problems connected to their size. They have small lungs and often suffer from breathing problems, and their organs often don’t function properly.

“Babies born after OxyContin and methadone use aren’t necessarily small at a gestational age,” Maxwell said. “It’s that they’re going through withdrawal.”

Methadone, OxyContin, heroin and other similar drugs all penetrate the placenta, giving babies in the womb proportional doses of the drugs their mothers take.

When they are born, infants need and crave the drug that was in their mother’s system. If they don’t get it, they go through a dangerous withdrawal phase just like adults.

“They are jittery, they are tremulous, they sometimes are sweating and they don’t eat properly,” Maxwell said. “It’s what we call narcotic withdrawal. It’s the same thing.”

After birth, the babies are given gradually decreasing doses of methadone no matter what drug had been in their system. They are slowly weaned off the drug until their addiction has passed.

But the process is a long one.

It’s one of the biggest challenges for doctors and hospitals dealing with drug-addicted newborns. The extended length of a hospital stay is hard on the infant, drains hospital resources and in most cases, costs more public dollars. The majority of these patients’ medical care is on the government’s tab.

“These babies are in the hospital for at least three weeks just trying to wean them off,” Maxwell said. “This is a four- or five- week hospital stay for a baby who should be in and out in two days.”

Maxwell couldn’t immediately provide statistics on how many babies in Charleston or in the state have been born with such addictions. But he said this year’s births were up over last year’s, and Charleston Area Medical Center has been receiving more referrals to help treat addicted newborns born in more rural parts of the state.

The addiction-counseling group Narcotics Anonymous reports on its Web site that in most states, hospitals have seen the annual number of such births double or triple in the past 10 years.

Kanawha County Metro Drug Unit Commander Chuck Carpenter said recently that the unit usually finds children living in the midst of the drug selling and manufacturing going on in many homes around the county.

“We see infants and we see 18 and 19-year-olds,” Carpenter said.

Kanawha County Prosecutor Bill Charnock’s office has prosecuted more than 80 people for selling or manufacturing methamphetamine over the past year. Charnock would not specifically discuss cases of pregnant woman found using or selling that and other drugs, but he said from his experience, the numbers are constantly increasing around the state.

Just last month, a St. Albans couple was arrested in connection with the February death of their infant son, 3-month-old Jacob McFarland. A judge issued a warrant for the parents’ arrest on charges of neglect leading to his death.

A report later released by the state Department of Health and Human Resources said the baby had been born with a drug addiction, was put on methadone and spent more than three weeks in the hospital, but he was never brought back for follow-up treatment.

Contact writer Kris Wise at [email protected] or 348-1244.