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Editorial: Anti-drug message to pregnant women is crucial

Apr. 15, 2013 @ 11:20 PM

A tragic byproduct of the substance-abuse culture afflicting so many in West Virginia was put under the spotlight at last Thursday's 7th annual Drug Prevention Summit in Huntington.

The victims in this case are entirely innocent. They are babies born with addictions either to drugs or alcohol because their mothers had abused the substances during their pregnancies. Just how severe the problem is in West Virginia was spelled out by two doctors -- David Chaffin and Sean Loudin -- who work with these babies and their mothers at the Maternal Addiction and Recovery Center at the Marshall University Medical Center.

"This is a monstrous tidal wave we're dealing with," Chaffin told the participants at the summit, which was presented by the Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership. "I want to ... set a fire in you about the rising incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome."

The question is what action can be taken to squelch -- or at least try to contain -- this growing problem. And it is growing, particularly in West Virginia. Seventy-five of every thousand babies born at Cabell Huntington Hospital have been exposed to drugs or alcohol, while the national average is five per 1,000, according to maternal-fetal medicine experts.

Staff at Cabell Huntington Hospital have seen the problem mushroom in recent years, to such an extent that addicted babies were taking up a big portion of its neonatal intensive care unit beds. That crush prompted the formation of the Maternal Addiction and Recovery Center, which is seeing dozens more babies each year, Chaffin said.

Programs such as that one at the center are needed to help wean the babies and their mothers from their addictions. Beyond that, though, is the need for ways to try to prevent such dangerous pregnancies in the first place and to help the mothers stay off the drugs once the infants are delivered.

One strategy is to put more resources into educating the public, particularly young women, about the consequences to children. Aggressive campaigns directed to women via public advertising and targeted locations such as community centers and doctors' offices might help implant the message as well as offer alternatives for help.

The "alternatives for help" is another aspect. Are there enough alternatives available?

Already, the state lacks sufficient treatment resources to meet the needs of the tens of thousands residents who abuse drugs and alcohol, although some progress is in the offing. Last August, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced $7.5 million in state money to establish or expand regional substance abuse support services, including treatment and/or recovery centers for women in three regions of the state. The legislature on Saturday passed a law to address prison and jail overcrowding, and included $25 million over five years for community-based substance abuse treatment programs.

However, three more centers aimed at women spread around West Virginia will leave many areas unserved, and the prison-bill money is directed to inmates released on probation or parole.

As all three speakers at last week's drug summit noted, the problem of drug addiction requires help at the state level. Chaffin said lawmakers face a question of "pay now or pay later." "You have this huge flood affecting pregnancies, affecting kids, kids coming into the school system, associated illnesses later on in life. This issue is here and it's not going to go away."

The "pay now" option is preferable. Working now to put programs in place may mean that far fewer babies will have to suffer in the future.



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