The innocents in Maine’s drug crisis: Almost 1,000 Maine babies exposed in the womb

A one-month-old baby cries in July 2013 at Eastern Maine Medical Center, where Dr. Mark Brown treats drug-affected newborns. Brian Feulner | BDN

A one-month-old baby cries in July 2013 at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where Dr. Mark Brown treats drug-affected newborns. Brian Feulner | BDN

Eight percent of all babies born in Maine during the last fiscal year entered the world affected by drugs. That’s nearly 1,000 infants exposed to drugs in the womb, the highest number on record and a more than fivefold increase since 2006.

Source: Maine DHHS

Source: Maine DHHS

This chart reflects instances where health care providers reported to the state that they had reasonable cause to suspect:

— The infant was affected by illegal substance abuse

— The infant showed withdrawal symptoms resulting from prenatal drug exposure (either illicit or prescribed, including mothers on methadone treatment for opioid addiction)

— Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. With all the focus on heroin and narcotic painkillers, let’s not forget that alcohol use during pregnancy is the leading known cause of preventable birth defects. In 2012, 13 percent of pregnant women in Maine had consumed alcohol in the month before the survey and three percent reported binge drinking, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

If anyone’s innocent in Maine’s drug crisis, it’s those babies.

Medical providers are careful to note these babies aren’t “drug-addicted.” Addiction involves a pattern of behavior that infants are incapable of, including seeking a high, they say.

The state is responding by hosting a conference later this month. Maine DHHS will convene a Substance Use and Pregnancy Conference on Sept. 30 in Portland to discuss the effects of prenatal substance use, how to prevent it, and ways to support families.

“We have to get a handle on the drug epidemic ravaging our young people in Maine,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a Friday news release announcing the conference. “The damage it’s doing to our babies and children is the worst symptom of this scourge.”

Dr. Mark Publicker, an addiction medicine specialist who practiced at the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook until its recent closure, will be the keynote speaker. He’s very well qualified, as a former president of the Northern New England Society of Addiction Medicine and editor-in-chief of the American Society of Addiction Medicine magazine, among other relevant experience.

But he’s an interesting pick, considering he has openly criticized the LePage administration’s policies, including a failed bid to end MaineCare funding for methadone treatment and a crack down on the prescribing of narcotic painkillers through the health insurance program.

Dr. Mark Publicker, an addiction medicine specialist formerly of the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Dr. Mark Publicker, an addiction medicine specialist formerly of the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Publicker doesn’t provide medical care to drug-affected babies, but he’s likely treated some of their mothers and fathers for addiction during his 30 years in the field.

DHHS encourages clinicians, counselors, support services representatives, and other treatment providers from around the state to attend the conference. Those attendees will receive a certificate upon completion.

The conference will be held at the Seasons Event and Conference Center in Portland, with registration beginning at 7:30 a.m. The registration fee is $30. For information, click here.

 

 

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.