5 News Investigates: Babies of the Epidemic

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WDTV) -- Imagine your first moments, hours and days on the earth beginning with symptoms of withdrawal. That's what 5-10% of West Virginia and North Central West Virginia babies experience when they're born addicted to opiate medicines. That number on the national level is just 0.5%.

Experts we talked to say it's all because of a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, a disorder born from within the opioid crisis when mothers get addicted.

The issue prompting a visit to the state from the first lady of the United States in July.

The symptoms of NAS are wide-ranging, from violent tremors to sometimes seizures, sweating, throwing up and poor feeding.

On the whole the U.S. consumes 80% of the world's opioid production, but what percentage is concentrated in our state?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports nearly 50 opioid overdoses occur per 100,000 people in West Virginia - by far the worst out of the 33 states that participated in the study.

Dr. Rahul Gupta is an executive with March of Dimes, but once had a prominent role addressing the state's opioid crisis as commissioner and state health officer for the West Virginia Department of Health.

He along with Dr. Collin John, assistant program director of internal medicine/pediatrics section at WVU School of Medicine.

Both doctors have been studying babies of the epidemic for more than years now and remain on the front lines of its research and practice.

Their biggest tasks were to define what NAS is so that signs and symptoms can be clearly identifiable to parents and medical professionals alike.

"What we did was said well we want to have a clear definition we wanted to be measuring that and we found in WV we have a very high rate of NAS. We had about 5.3 percent. That's like 1 in 20 babies born in WV suffer from NAS. We found there were some counties that had prevalence of up to 10 percent or more of NAS. That's 1 in 10 babies that are being born with NAS," said Dr. Gupta.

Dr. John is part of a breakthrough team that is the first of its kind in the nation to collect real-time data on NAS. He and his team's research has also revealed that numbers specific to North Central West Virginia - or Region 4 - are steady and ofttimes underestimated.

"Region 4 at 6 percent is probably about middle of the road. Some places you'll see around 9.2 which is the highest and then we see some regions with as low as 3 percent. A lot of this has to do with how doctors are diagnosing NAS," said Dr. John.

It's also about who and how much is being prescribed. Prescription opioids like Vicodin, Morphine and Oxycodones like OxyContin and Percocet are among the drugs overly prescribed by doctors.

Dr. Gupta says their study's find the number of babies with NAS are directly related to the number of opioids prescribed by doctors - so they decided to go after them first to try to reduce the problem.

"We said we want to take a look at how providers are prescribing opioids and what we found was that there's a relatively matching of where you have high rates of NAS you also have hgih rates of prescribing for opioids. So that was an important piece of the puzzle because that means if you want to address NAS you really have to address prescribing. And that led to a few launchings in the state that we were really proud of and we were able to get prescribing down. But through thta work, the ability to impact life at it's very beginning, at it's very core, and had such ability to really impact the next generation of Americans because these children are our future."

His role with March of Dimes directly inspired by his experience fighting for West Virginia's babies.

"I wanted to have that impact on a much larger national level and that was what interested me to working at a national level at March of Dimes where I could use the lessons we had learned in West Virginia and West Virginia could be a model in showing us the way forward in this arena across the country," said Dr. Gupta.

The doctors say that the most pressing issue now is when these babies grow up, how their livelihoods will be affected.

"Unfortunately as we're starting to potentially see is that the effects of NAS can actually persist beyond infancy...

"I think the biggest thing that I want people to realize is what a real problem this is, and not just in that first potentially the first three or four days of life, where we're really vigilant and looking at these babies, but when they get older, I think that's one of those areas where we really don't know what we see," said Dr. John.

"We do not know if 100% of recovery is possible with NAS, We do know that there's a lot of children that are growing up to be fine human beings and doing great things. This is such a young disorder itself because we are not even to the point of tracking all of those children yet." Dr. Gupta

Developmental and behavioral disorder could present issues later in life such as ADD and ADHD. Both are being looked into as possible consequences of early addiction brought on by NAS.

"It's very important to make sure we continue to focus on these children, what happens to these children when they grow old and to understand that they are going to need a lot of support... it's very important to give them a warm protective environment, so they can grow up feeling safe, feeling protected, feeling loved," said Dr. Gupta.

"There's a lot of issues with kids having behavioral problems issues with aggression, impulsiveness. When a lot of this was thought to be related to diagnosis such as ADHD, were actually thinking that there may be more to it than that. We're kind of potentially shifting our way of thinking to was there an exposure potentially that may have interacted or created kind of that propensity to developing this aggressiveness that's not just simply a product of something like ADHD that we would classically label these children," said Dr. John.

"Our state forms a model for the nation to be able to make sure we're diagnosing right we're monitoring these kids right and if they need help we're providing that help," said Dr. Gupta. "Remember that strong babies are the result of having healthy moms, and vice versa."