JOHNSTOWN - This week area police rounded up 60 people suspected of being involved in drug trafficking. State officials from the governor on down say the abuse of heroin and other opioids is epidemic in Pennsylvania.
A doctor who deals with the youngest victims of drug abuse says, unfortunately, he's seeing more patients.
Dr. John Chan, a neonatologist at Conemaugh Health System says, "it may be anywhere from 20 to sometimes 50 percent of the numbers of babies we're taking care of."
Dr. Chan says he's seen a significant rise in the number of newborns who end up in Conemaugh's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), because they were born addicted to drugs.
From July of 2010 to June of the following year, the NICU cared for 12 patients, exposed to drugs in the womb. That increased to 38 the next year,59 last year and could top that in the current year.
The number of addicted babies admitted to the NICU at Penn Highlands DuBois stayed fairly consistent around the same time period, at about 50 babies a year. Infants exposed to drugs in the womb ranged from 17 percent of NICU admissions to 23 percent.
Dr. Chan described withdrawal symptoms as, "you have a child that just is fussy does not sleep, eventually many denigrate into diarrhea and can in the extreme, can go into seizures." He says a main goal in the NICU is to keep the babies from progressing to seizures.
The substances they've been exposed to range from heroin to prescription drugs, and even to methadone and suboxone, the latter two from mothers trying to beat an opiate addiction.
The NICU tries non-drug methods, such as swaddling and nesting the babies with the mothers, at first. Also, neonatal nurses are always there with a comforting hand , as well to follow the infants closely.
Sometimes the babies need phenobarbital or tincture of opium or methadone to recover. Dr Chan says most of them "get over the hump" but whether they thrive depends not only on their own health, but that of their mothers. He says along with caring for the babies, the NICU staff tries to support the mothers and make sure they get help fighting their addictions.
"We can tide the baby over," Dr. Chan says, "but then the rest of the baby's life from that point on is in the mother's hands." He says mothers often need help from social workers, as well as other community resources, and their babies may benefit from early intervention programs.
Dr. Chan says the community needs to work together to help mothers and babies get a solid footing, because the problem is only getting worse. He added that, "I think the time for saying that maybe this will blow over, I think that horse is out of the barn."
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