More than 200 people gathered in Portland yesterday to discuss what Gov. Paul LePage has described as the “worst symptom” of Maine’s addiction crisis: Babies exposed to drugs in the womb.
Their numbers continue to rise. 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, the highest number on record and a more than fivefold increase since 2006.
But the reality of the problem extends beyond this troubling chart.
Those numbers reflect both illicit drug use, such as illegal street drugs, and babies born to mothers using prescribed medications they’re supposed to take. That includes methadone and buprenorphine treatment for opioid addiction.
While no drug exposure is obviously best, babies with mothers in treatment fare better than those born to moms abusing drugs — the roller coaster of intoxication and withdrawal typical of illicit drug use increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight, experts say.
At least two speakers at yesterday’s conference, hosted by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, pointed out that while the number of drug-affected babies is rising, many factors could be at play.
More mothers getting into addiction treatment would boost the numbers. Better reporting and surveillance also likely play a role, explained Sara Doré of Maine DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services. Not all of those babies are abused or neglected, she said. Others are.
Maine’s worsening addiction crisis is no doubt a factor.
One in 20 pregnant Maine women between the ages of 15 and 44 reports using an illicit drug during the previous month, said Tim Diomede, who analyzes the data for Maine DHHS. Among younger women, those aged 18-25, the rate is double that, or one in 10, he said.
Which drugs are pregnant mothers in Maine using most? Among those seeking addiction treatment, synthetic opioids (narcotic painkillers) rise to the top of the list.
But heroin and morphine are vying for first place, as you can see from this chart that tracks the primary reason for treatment among pregnant mothers over time.
Let’s not overlook alcohol, which one expert I spoke to last year called “the most damaging of all the prenatal substances.” You might be surprised by which mothers are mostly likely to drink during pregnancy. Maine’s data show they’re older (35+) and wealthier, earning at least $50,000 a year.
Beyond the statistics, a common theme that emerged from the conference was compassion for mothers facing addiction. Judging a mother already burdened by the spiral of drug dependency only lessens the chances she’ll get help, several attendees said.
“The shame and guilt, it’s so prevalent,” said Susan Gurney, a nurse practitioner who works at a Waterville methadone clinic. “I hear over and over, ‘My baby didn’t ask for this.'”