Epidemic of Drug-Dependent Newborns Worsens in Tennessee

The state's health department predicts more than 800 will be born this year.

The numbers are grim and getting worse: During the first nine months of this year, 643 babies were born drug dependent in Tennessee because of drugs their mothers took during pregnancy – more than the 629 who were born with that problem during all of 2011. "At the current rate this epidemic is progressing, we are projecting more than 800 drug-dependent newborns by the end of this year," said Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner, M.D., MPH. "This is a preventable condition that can be largely eliminated. Preventing addiction, thoughtful treatment, and preventing unintended pregnancy are the most productive conversations we can have right now."

"Our data show the majority of these births involved a mother taking medicine prescribed by a health care provider," he added. "We need improved conversations between women of childbearing age and their doctors about waiting for a safer time and preventing an unintended pregnancy while the mother is in medically necessary treatment and referral to treatment that includes addressing this for women using these powerful drugs illicitly."

According to the department's data:

  • 42.1 percent used only substances prescribed to them for legitimate treatment
  • 20.4 percent used a mix of prescribed and non-prescribed substances
  • 33.4 percent used substances obtained through illegal sources
  • 4.0 percent were unable to provide the exact source of substances they took

TDH reports that the most current statistics in Tennessee indicate TennCare costs for a healthy newborn are $4,237, while the average cost for an infant born dependent on drugs, diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome, is $66,973.

"Women of child-bearing age who are pregnant or become pregnant while they are also using or abusing drugs need to know that treatment is available to them," said Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner E. Douglas Varney. "This would apply to women who are using illegal drugs or even prescription drugs; they and their prescribers need to know what the risks are to themselves and their babies. Treatment is effective, and it has been shown to help the mother and child live a long, healthy life."

Weekly updates on newborns dependent on drugs in the state are available here.

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