Pain clinics have sprouted up across Florida. Those arriving at these “pill mills” with chronic pain complaints can walk away with a handful of prescriptions for pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Florida’s lack of prescription monitoring laws, until very recently, has allowed pain clinic physicians to write hundreds of prescriptions daily for highly addictive pain medications, without oversight.
The destructive effects of “pill mills” flooding the streets with prescription drugs have taken their toll in Hernando County on Florida’s Gulf Coast. In each of the past two years, nearly 100 residents have died from drug overdoses. WestBridge operates a dual diagnosis treatment program in Hernando County, Fl; treating individuals with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders.
Unwitting victims of prescription drug abuse are babies born to mothers on methadone or a prescription pain medication. Infants going through withdrawal regularly represent half of those cared for in the neonatal intensive care unit at Spring Hill Regional Hospital, Hernando County’s primary medical center.
Until a few years ago, the unit cared for five or six babies a year undergoing methadone withdrawal, says Dr. Mary Newport, medical director of the hospital’s NICU. In the past three years, 200 babies have been admitted to the NICU with opiate withdrawal.
The symptoms of withdrawal are unmistakable: muscle rigidity, tremors, rapid breathing, sweating, fever, poor feeding behavior, vomiting and diarrhea. Testing of an umbilical cord sample shows if drug use occurred during pregnancy.
“People are under the impression that if it’s a prescription drug, it’s okay,” says Dr. Newport. “Oxycodone and methodone are prescription drugs but they can be very bad for the baby. They alter brain chemistry and in a developing fetus with altered brain chemistry, we wonder if these children will be addicted later. ”These babies stay an average of three weeks and some up to eight weeks in the NICU. To ease the babies’ withdrawal symptoms, they are treated with low doses of morphine and are gradually weaned off this painkiller as their numbers improve on the Finnegan neonatal abstinence scoring system.
Mothers of these infants are typically investigated by the Florida Department of Children and Families, but most of these babies eventually go home. “What effect will this early addiction have on these children and their mental capacity and growth?” asks Judy Thompson, a charge nurse in labor and delivery at Spring Hill Regional and the president of the Hernando County chapter of NAMI. “What has this done to their brains, being in withdrawal and then on morphine, a powerful drug that saves their life?”
The answers to these questions are not yet known.
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