July 9, 2012

Innocent victims: Drug dependence begins early for some Mainers

BY WANDA CURTIS, Correspondent

Growing up on an island off the coast of southern Maine, Lena was using alcohol and marijuana by the age of 9. She continued to experiment with more potent drugs, tried to quit and found out several years later she couldn't on her own, so she enrolled in a methadone treatment program.

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Newborn baby feet

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While on the methadone, she found out she was expecting her first child.

Lena's baby boy was born addicted to methadone, but the school-age boy now seems to be healthy, thanks to comprehensive addiction treatment Lena got during and after her pregnancy.

Her experience is becoming more common as an explosion in prescription drug abuse fuels addiction problems in Maine, and health care providers are looking for ways to deal with the epidemic of drug-affected babies in a state where the means for such treatment often aren't available.

It was painful knowing her baby's withdrawal symptoms were caused by her own methadone treatment, said Lena, who spoke on condition her real name not be used. But to continue to use illicit drugs could have caused more serious health issues for her baby, including death.

"It's important to have a combination of physical and emotional treatment," said Lena. She received high doses of methadone during pregnancy to treat an addiction to opiates, and her baby boy had many symptoms after birth, such as vomiting, diarrhea, tremors and restlessness.

"That was the most painful experience of my life," she said.

The director of Maine's Office of Substance Abuse said that the household medicine cabinet has become the new neighborhood drug dealer, with friends and relatives being some of the most frequent suppliers of illicit prescription drugs.

The result is that drug dependence is beginning very early for some Mainers.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome, withdrawal symptoms experienced by newborns exposed to illicit or prescribed narcotics during pregnancy, includes symptoms like irritability, high-pitched crying, tremors, seizures, poor feeding, diarrhea and vomiting.

If mothers receive treatment for addiction during pregnancy, a baby's overall prognosis is usually better. But the number of facilities and health care professionals equipped to provide treatment to addicted mothers in Maine is inadequate, officials say.

Guy Cousins, director of the state's Office of Substance Abuse Services, said that while the number of drug-affected babies in Maine has risen dramatically, resources for providing treatment to mothers in recovery are dwindling. Cousins cited Department of Health and Human Services statistics showing the number of drug-affected babies reported in Maine rose from 165 in 2005 to 667 in 2011 -- a fourfold increase.

Maine topped the list of states reporting increased hospital admissions for treatment of non-heroin opiate addictions between 1998 and 2008. A report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reveals Maine reported the highest increase in their rate of admissions for treatment of non-heroin opiates of any state in the nation during those years. Maine admissions increased from 28 per 100,000 to 386 per 100,000.

Maine has the highest prescription drug addiction rate in the country per capita, according to Cousins.

However, Cousins said that despite increasing numbers of addictions reported, Maine's resources for treatment of drug addictions are dwindling. During rounds of recent state budget cuts, treatment expenditures decreased by $1.4 million between 2009 and 2011.

Treatment concerns

The director of Mercy Hospital's Recovery Center, physician Mark Publicker, said some of the more serious health issues experienced by drug-affected babies are caused by alternating high and low levels of narcotics in the bodies of expectant mothers who use drugs without physician supervision. The fluctuating drug levels can cause constriction of blood flow to the baby and result in spontaneous abortion, pre-term birth, or small for gestational-age babies he said.

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