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Supporting the youngest victims of the opioid crisis

Hidden within the numbers of one of the deadliest drug epidemics in U.S. history is another growing crisis that is producing the youngest, most vulnerable victims of opioid abuse: newborn babies. 

The toll is staggering. According the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of pregnant women with opioid use disorder has increased exponentially in recent years, and, in 2014, nearly 32,000 babies in the U.S. were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome and suffered from opioid withdrawal. That’s the equivalent of one baby every 15 minutes.

When babies are exposed to opioids in the womb they often suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) following birth, a condition that causes difficult withdrawal symptoms that range from excessive crying and poor feeding to sleep problems, vomiting and seizures. Longer-term effects like developmental delays and brain damage are common. These babies need extra care and require longer hospital stays, more monitoring and medication leading to costs that are six times higher than treating a baby without the condition. 

Tennessee is part of a cluster of states hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic, particularly among pregnant women. In fact, Tennessee’s rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome increased 10-fold from 2000 to 2010, and hit an all-time high in 2017.

To address the growing number of infants who are born dependent on opioids, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST) is supporting programs that help with recovery for moms and newborns, as evidence suggests that with appropriate, timely support for mothers, outcomes for children can be improved. A $1 million grant, for example, enabled East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville to build a unit specifically designed to care for children with NAS.

Additionally, as part of a statewide campaign, BCBST has been educating people – including women of child-bearing age – about the need to secure and properly dispose of opioids to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. The grassroots “Count It! Lock It! Drop It!®” (CLD) campaign, supported by the BCBST Health Foundation, encourages safety in three simple steps. CLD recommends people regularly count their opioid pills to monitor for theft and ensure medications are taken properly; lock and store them in a place where others would not think to look; and take unused or expired medications to specially designated drop boxes or to turn prescriptions in during drug take-back events.

Efforts are starting to pay off: For the first time this year, the rate of babies born with opioid addiction in Tennessee has decreased.

Count It! Lock It! Drop It!® is a trademark of the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation, Inc. are independent licensees of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, an association of 36 independent and locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies.

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