I-Team: Infants hospitalized for opioids jump 893 percent

Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Alarming increase of opioid dependency in infants
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The number of infants experiencing opioid withdrawal symptons has skyrocketed.

RALEIGH, North Carolina (WTVD) -- Another day, another frightening development in the fight against North Carolina's opioid crisis.

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New data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows a staggering 893 percent rise in the rate of newborns hospitalized for drug withdrawal between the year 2004 to 2015, and a current ratio of 1 out of every 100 babies born statewide suffering from symptoms of withdrawal.

"It's not normal," Dr. James Perciaccante, Medical Director of WakeMed Neonatology, told the ABC11 I-Team. "We've seen infants with narcotics withdrawal before, but never at such a high level. The danger is they won't develop normally."

According to Perciaccante, infants develop symptoms for drug withdrawal in utero, when their mother develops her own addiction to the opioids in painkillers. The babies can then develop a physical dependency on those drugs.

"The most common symptom is this harsh, piercing cry that really sounds like the baby is in pain," Perciaccante explained. "The biggest problem we run into is that without sleep, they don't feed well, and if they're not eating, they're not gaining weight. Without gaining weight, their brains don't grow and that begins to interfere with their development."

On a recent visit to WakeMed, Attorney General Josh Stein called the experience "illuminating and saddening," learning from Dr. Perciaccante's team that an average of eight of every 38 babies in WakeMed's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) are born drug dependent.

According to WakeMed, the average length of stay is 19 days at a cost of $4,000 a day - a total of $76,000.

"What a tragic way for a tiny infant to enter the world," Stein added.

National data confirms the extreme cost of care for neonatal abstinence - as much as $1.5 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"I'm hopeful because a lot of attention is coming to (the opioid epidemic) now," Perciaccante said. "The Attorney General is getting involved, the Governor is getting involved, the President - people are beginning to pay attention to this problem. Until we take action on a large scale to reduce the number of opioids in the community, then we won't see a decrease in the number of babies that are born addicted."