The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

December 13, 2009

1 in 5 babies exposed to drugs or alcohol

Researchers ‘not surprised’ by results of study

CHARLESTON — Nearly one-fifth of babies in West Virginia are born to mothers who used drugs or alcohol while pregnant, a new study shows — evidence of a problem far worse than previous research has revealed.

Marijuana, opiates and alcohol topped the list of substances used by pregnant women, whose babies’ umbilical cord tissues were analyzed for the Marshall University study.

Overall, 19 percent of the babies were exposed to drugs or alcohol during pregnancy.

Researchers found evidence of marijuana use in 7 percent of the samples. Five percent of the samples tested positive for alcohol. Five percent tested positive for opiates, which include prescription painkillers.

Many of the mothers had used multiple drugs.

But the seemingly startling numbers don’t shock the people who take care of drug-addicted mothers and babies. They say they have seen a crisis unfolding in West Virginia delivery rooms for a decade.

“I wasn’t surprised because I’ve been on the front lines,” said Marshall University obstetrician David Chaffin, who conducted the study with other doctors. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of mothers who are on drugs.”

Dr. Chaffin has seen babies “zonked out on Valium” — sleepy, weak and struggling to breathe. He has seen babies vomit and cry as they suffer from opiate withdrawal.

Medical literature indicates that between 10 percent and 14 percent of babies nationally are exposed to drugs and alcohol in the womb, Chaffin said. But other studies have used different methods to gauge the problem, so experts can’t compare them.

A mother’s addiction can plague a child long after birth, said Nancy Tolliver, director of the West Virginia Perinatal Partnership. Alcohol abuse during pregnancy is a leading cause of mental retardation.

“We know that even if they don’t have obvious symptoms at the time they’re born, many of these babies have learning difficulties later in their life, and social adjustment difficulties,” Tolliver said. “It’s got to be absolutely extensive, the social cost of this.”

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