WHITESBURG, Kentucky: As a nurse in eastern Kentucky, Diane Watts is all too familiar with the ear-piercing screams of drug addicts suffering through withdrawal.
Comforting them through the pain and tremors has become a regular part of her job in the obstetrics unit at Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital.
The number of infants born addicted to prescription drugs like OxyContin and methadone has sharply increased over the past year. In the newest twist to the prescription drug epidemic in the mountain region of Kentucky, hospitals have found themselves doubling as detox centers for babies hooked on powerful narcotics.
"From May 1998 to May 2002 we delivered three babies that were born addicted," Watts said. "But from May 2002 to May 2003, we saw 24 babies born addicted."
The increase in addicted babies is part of the legacy of abuse by adults of OxyContin and other prescription drugs in the mountain region. Scores have been jailed for black-market trafficking in painkillers, and several physicians have been indicted for over-prescribing drugs.
Watts, the nurse manager of obstetrics and pediatrics at the Whitesburg hospital in Kentucky, said her staff began to notice an increase in the number of babies born addicted to narcotics in November 2002, and began testing all expectant mothers for drugs.
Doctors at the University of Kentucky Family Practice Center in Hazard also started screening more of its obstetrics patients for drug abuse after four drug-addicted babies were born in February, said Dr. Chandramohan Batra, who worked at the center until June. Physicians at the Family Practice Center, a division of the University of Kentucky's Center for Rural Health, deliver only about eight babies each month, he said.
Doctors at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky also have seen an increase in babies born addicted to opiates. Dr. Henrietta Bada, chief of the division of neonatology, said that in 1997 the neonatal intensive care unit saw two babies exposed to opiates. From 2001 to 2002 that number increased to 20.
At Pikeville Methodist Hospital in Kentucky, the percentage of addicted babies jumped from 3 percent of the 200 treated each year in the hospital's neonatal intensive care to 6 percent in the past year, said Dr. Ruth Ann Shepherd, a neonatologist.
Watts said caring for drug-addicted babies can be physically and emotionally draining.
"You have to hold them a lot," she said. Babies experiencing drug withdrawal are very irritable and hard to comfort. They have this high-pitched cry and they're very jittery."
Drug-addicted babies also have trouble sleeping, eating and even breathing, Watts said.
Nurses working with these babies comfort the infants as much as possible and keep them in a quiet place, Watts said.
"Most drug-addicted moms are in denial and they think that if they go to a clinic it will be OK," Watts said. "The parents don't think the effects are that serious."
But withdrawal symptoms can be severe, including tremors and seizures, she said. Doctors have also seen an increased incidence of sudden infant death syndrome in babies addicted to methadone -- which is the drug most commonly seen at Whitesburg ARH Hospital in Kentucky, Watts said.