Guest Column: Babies born drug-dependent must be stopped

Feb. 28, 2013 @ 12:18 AM

Too many babies are born in Tennessee dependent on addictive drugs their mother took while pregnant. Often within a few hours of delivery, the baby starts the painful process of withdrawal. It’s difficult to watch, even if you’re a clinician accustomed to seeing a lot of suffering.

Seizure and tremors, along with high-pitched crying, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, sweating, irritability and sleeping problems provide evidence of the condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, NAS. Some of the drugs taken by the mother include prescriptions to treat a variety of pain-causing conditions. Other may be prescribed as part of a drug addiction treatment program. And, sadly, some are obtained through non-legitimate means.

NAS is another tragic, costly consequence of our national problem with narcotics, touching many people’s hearts – and most certainly their wallets. Health care expenses of a NAS baby are five times higher on average than a non-NAS baby. It is also a growing problem.

A recent study showed the rate of NAS babies born to TennCare mothers was double in 2010 from what it was in 2008. And it is very important to know this is not a problem confined to any income level or geographic setting.

Fortunately, many people in Tennessee are taking action to combat it.

During the 107th General Assembly, state legislators passed the Tennessee Prescription Safety Act of 2012, a measure that gives prescribers and dispensers an effective way to share information about prescriptions of controlled substances.

Clinicians were required to register by Jan. 1, 2013, to participate in the Control Substance Monitoring Database, and to start using it in April before prescribing or dispensing some drugs. The database will help eliminate unintentional overprescribing which contributes to NAS.

Also starting Jan. 1, NAS became a reportable condition in Tennessee. This means clinicians are required to provide the Tennessee Department of Health with information that can be used to focus efforts in prevention and treatment, reducing the number of newborns dependent on addictive drugs.

Several state commissioners and staff members are working collaboratively to prevent NAS babies. These include professionals from the Department of Health, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Children’s Services, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Division of Health Care Finance and Administration.

These leaders are researching, designing and implementing strategies now to safeguard the babies of tomorrow.

Among the earliest initiatives was an effort to work with the Food and Drug Administration to provide additional information to clinicians about certain narcotics used in treating pregnant women. Other efforts will focus on more ways to communicate with mothers-to-be, and their families and communities across Tennessee.

If you have suggestions or comments to help address NAS in Tennessee, send those to

Because this is a preventable problem affecting communities across our state, everyone is encouraged to be a part of the process to find solutions.

— Dr. John Dreyzehner is commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health.