Milwaukee Hospital Helping Babies Suffering From Drug Withdrawal

Pilot Program Tries To Wean Expectant Mothers Off Opioids
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Infants born addicted to drugs are one of several unfortunate results of Wisconsin's drug epidemic stemming from the abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers.

At Aurora Sinai Medical Center in downtown Milwaukee, there have been nearly two dozen drug-addicted babies born in a five-month period.

"From January through May, 23 babies came into our NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) suffering from dependence issues, and what's striking is this has actually been increasing in the recent months," said Dr. Andy Anderson, chief medical officer for Aurora Health Care.

The medical center started a program last year that helps pregnant addicts wean off opiates. The Maternal Addiction Recovery Center, or MARC Program, began as a pilot program in March 2015 and is now looking to expand from a pilot to other Aurora hospitals.

"It's really designed to wean moms off of narcotics while also providing ongoing support for both the baby and the mom," Anderson said.

The program uses Medication-Assisted Treatment, a combination of counseling and behavioral therapy with buprenorphine – an opioid medication with the trade name of Suboxone, which is used to treat heroin addiction. Because buprenorphine is an opioid, it can lead to an infant becoming dependent on opioids.

During a hearing Monday at the state capitol for the Governor's Task Force on Opioid Abuse, chairman Rep. John Nygren asked Anderson about the controversial use and consequences of using an opioid to treat addiction.

"We've heard a lot about drug-assisted treatment, medical-assisted treatment, at least two of the three (drugs used in MAT) I'm aware of will actually lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome, correct?" said Nygren, R-Marinette. "So, unfortunately, even though we may be doing something positive, it does create another medical challenge."

Anderson said MARC is getting addicted babies out of the hospital faster than if the mother weren't trying to wean herself off opiates.

He said drug-dependent babies have 10 fewer days in the hospital after birth versus an average of 16 days when the mother is not being treated with Suboxone. That, Anderson said, has helped Aurora save $13,000 in hospitalization costs.

The MARC Program is operating at full capacity, he said, and the medical center would like to grow the program, but needs resources.

Infants born addicted to drugs is not only a problem urban areas are facing. As WPR previously reported, Ashland County had the state's highest rate of babies born with narcotic withdrawal symptoms last year.

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