Born into addiction- how opioids affect the next generation

‘Sarah Murray tends to two dozen babies in the neonatal therapeutic unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital. They shake. They vomit. Their inconsolable, high-pitched screams pierce the air. The symptoms can last for hours, days, or months.’

Every 19 minutes, one baby is born addicted to opioids in the United States. Opioid addiction is a growing epidemic in America. As the addiction on prescription painkillers increased, supplies ran low, and people switched to heroin instead; this is the strongest opioid painkiller available.

Heroin is the most widely abused of all opiates in the world. It can be either smoked or injected with a needle and the drugs bring along various side effects, both on short and long term. Once heroin enters the brain, abusers typically report the feeling of a pleasurable rush. This is often accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, a dry mouth, heavy extremities and slowed breathing. Taking into account the long-term effects, we see that this temporary ‘pleasurable rush’ causes serious damage to the user’s body, such as collapsing veins, heart infections, liver diseases and spontaneous abortion. In addition to that, a heavy side effect is withdrawal. This happens a few hours after the last use and can include drug craving, muscle pain, bone pain and vomiting. These effects of withdrawal are exactly the symptoms that addicted new-borns show. Babies born to mothers who have used heroin during their pregnancy inherit their addiction and must go through withdrawal upon birth. Later in life studies have shown that they face many difficulties, both mentally and physically.

Even though there is an existing law which calls on states to take steps to safeguard addicted babies after they leave the hospital, the so-called Keeping Children and Families Safe Act, social services are often too late to intervene. This was for example the case with Jennifer Lacey Frazier. Help came too late to save her daughter, who didn’t only inherit her mother’s blue eyes, but also her opioid addiction. Social services weren’t able to save the little girl, who died because of suffering from withdrawal. Whereas the federal law calls on states to protect each of these babies, and hospitals are supposed to alert child protection authorities, these institutions are ignoring this federal provision, leaving thousands of new-borns at risk every year.

Drawing upon another example, this time about the impact of drug addicted parents. US police shamed drug users in September by releasing shocking photos of them passed out with their four-year-old son in the backseat. An ambulance was called and both parents were given Naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, a common way to reverse an opioid overdose. This medication blocks the effects of an opioid overdose. The police officers posted two images of the scene on Facebook as a highly controversial move, to raise awareness for children caught up in these horrible situation of drug addiction

Measures are being taken against Opioid drug addiction, such as safe-injection sites. These are injection centres where addicts can use a small amount of heroin under supervision. Narcan and medical marijuana have been tried, but they could not prevent the increasingly high numbers of heroin-related overdoses. The road to tackle opioid drug addiction is a long one. Up until that time, we will be confronted with the harsh reality: the innocent victims of opioid addiction.

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