WATERVILLE, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Maine's opiate drug epidemic shows no signs of slowing down.
Besides a record number of overdose deaths, health and government leaders are more concerned than ever about the number of babies being born affected by illegal drugs. Maine DHHS said 8 percent of all births — 1,013 babies — were born in 2015 affected by drugs or alcohol, or both.
Alane O'Connor, a nurse practitioner who treats addicts at Maine General Hospital in Waterville, said they try to get pregnant women into the family practice addiction treatment program as early as possible, so they can begin medically-assisted treatment with drugs, such as methadone or Suboxone.
O'Connor said they then enroll the mothers in intensive therapy, to counsel them on their addiction.
For the babies, medical experts say the earlier the mothers get treatment, the better.
Babies can still experience some withdrawal symptoms once they're born, but O'Connor said, if mothers have had early treatment, those symptoms are dramatically reduced.
Dr. Chris Pazzullo of Maine DHHS said about 70 percent of mothers do get into treatment, but for those who don't, withdrawal symptoms for the babies can be much more severe.
The biggest unknown is what sort of developmental or health problems, if any, those children will experience in future years.
Pazzullo said they don't have those answers yet because the opiate problem has grown so rapidly there have not been long-term studies. O'Connor said their own studies show that in the first year of life, the babies appear to develop normally, but they, too, don't know about long term.
Maine DHHS is asking all obstetricians and clinics to test pregnant mothers for drugs and alcohol as early as possible, so those who need treatment can start it early. They hope that can minimize withdrawal for as many babies as possible, reducing their discomfort, and shortening hospital stays, which can sometimes last for weeks.