New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof says drug executives should be held accountable for the growing number of infants born addicted to opioids.
Instead of being lovingly swaddled and rocked in the first day of life, thousands of American infants are being treated for opioid withdrawal almost immediately after birth, a condition caused by exposure to opioids when they were in the womb.
At Charleston Area Medical Center in Charleston, West Virginia, neonatologist Stefan Maxwell says that up to 14 percent of babies are born dependent on opioids, according to The New York Times. Often, these infants experience painful and dangerous withdrawal symptoms that themselves need to be treated with opioids like methadone or morphine that can be tapered over the course of weeks.
“He’s frantic,” Maxwell said of one infant. “Baby isn’t sleeping, isn’t eating, isn’t growing. It’s a disaster.”
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)
Writing for the Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof detailed the prevalence of neonatal abstinence syndrome. The rise in rates of the condition can’t just be blamed on women who use drugs while pregnant. A system that peddled opioids and a healthcare system that woefully underfunds treatment are also to blame, he writes.
“Pharmaceutical executives are battling lawsuits by blaming drug users. I wish those executives had to cuddle these infants who, partly because of their reckless greed, suffer so much,” Kristof writes. “These drug-addicted newborns are suffering partly because of Johnson & Johnson, McKinsey, Purdue Pharma, McKesson and many other companies; these babies are a reminder of why corporate regulation is essential.”
Neonatologist Cody Smith, who practices at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia, said most mothers are helpless in the face of addiction. Nearly all of them have unplanned pregnancies, and few have the resources to deal with their own trauma and mental health conditions, so they continue to use opioids while pregnant.
“Lots of these moms are very well meaning,” he said. “The vast majority of these moms love their babies, and they feel a tremendous amount of guilt.”
Toll on Healthcare Providers
Maxwell said that caring for infants in such destress can take a toll on healthcare providers. “Nurses are in tears at the end of a shift,” he said.
Kristof calls for punishing those at the root of the addiction epidemic, as well as providing support for vulnerable women and babies.
“We need accountability, as well as deterrence,” he writes. “That means sending executives to prison along with other big drug dealers, and ensuring that shareholders in these companies suffer as well.”
He continues, “Anyone doubting the need for tougher accountability, and for a far more robust public health approach to address drug use, should visit one of these nurseries and see babies suffering withdrawal.”