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More babies being born addicted to prescription drugs

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At East Tennessee Children's Hospital in Knoxville, nurses and doctors are scrambling to deal with a problem that is quickly becoming an epidemic: babies who are born addicted to prescription drugs.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that drug abuse in Tennessee is higher than almost anywhere else in the nation, and that the East Tennessee Children's Hospital alone expects to treat 320 children this year for drug dependence. In 2008, that number was 33.

It blew us away," Andrew Pressnell, a nurse at the unit, said of the increase. "We didn't know what to do."

Born with pain

A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than 13,000 U.S.-born babies were affected by prescription drug addiction in 2009. Currently, however, the U.S. government doesn't keep data on how many infants are born with this type of affliction.

Dr. John Buchheit, who leads the neonatology unit, said that addicted babies are typically treated by giving them small doses of an opiate and gradually weaning them off over a period of days or weeks.

Infants who are born addicted tend to suffer excruciating pain, Buchheit said, exhibiting symptoms like nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea. They can also have trouble eating and sleeping, and more serious cases might involve seizures or the cessation of breathing.

Addressing the issue

States have passed laws in recent years to start cracking down on prescription drug abuse, but opioid addiction continues to be a major problem - and one that doesn't discriminate based on race, income or other socioeconomic factors.

In Tennessee, the Department of Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner is working with a group to lobby the Food and Drug Administration to put labels on prescription drugs to caution pregnant women about potential dangers.

"If there is anything that could drive the people in our society to stop turning their heads to adult addiction," said Carla Saunders, a neonatal nurse practitioner, "it's going to be the babies."

Source: Christian Science Monitor