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Help for the youngest victims

Dr. Barry Halpern removes barriers that stand between pregnant women and the treatment they need.

When Dr. Barry Halpern joined Central Ohio Newborn Medicine in 2005, it was typical for him to treat two or three babies each year who were suffering drug withdrawal. But in 2017 alone, Halpern estimates he cared for 200 newborns who were craving drugs from the moment they were born. “It continues to get worse,” says Halpern ’81 MD, a neonatologist who has treated newborns for 35 years.

The medical term for the babies’ condition is neonatal abstinence syndrome, which occurs when a fetus in the womb receives drugs through its mother. Infants who are born with this syndrome — they are going through drug withdrawal after birth — also are more likely to have low birthweight, failure to thrive and increased central nervous system irritability, which can lead to seizures.

As more people become dependent on opioids, the number of infants exposed to drugs in utero rises, too, and many of those babies require stays in a neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. In 2015, an average of 83 infants were being treated for drug withdrawal in Ohio hospitals on any given day, an estimate based on Ohio Department of Health statistics. The problem is costly in other ways: The same state report showed health care costs for neonatal abstinence syndrome in Ohio that year topped $133 million.

“As a medical professional, when you’re seeing more of an issue, you have the opportunity to improve what you’re doing and how you respond to it,” Halpern says. That vision led him to find a new way to help sick infants — something he’s been doing since graduating from medical school at Ohio State.

In 2014, he and several colleagues received state funding to set up the Mother Infant Recovery Clinic in Columbus. Patients received multiple services in one place, including addiction treatment, group counseling and prenatal care.

“We also trained the moms to provide care for their own babies postpartum, promoting stronger bonding and avoiding much of the need for neonatal medication to control the symptoms of withdrawal," Halpern says.

The approach showed signs of success. In a typical hospital setting, Halpern says, about half of all babies with drug withdrawal need to be admitted to the NICU. Only 10 percent of newborns whose moms received care at the Mother Infant Recovery Clinic needed to remain in the hospital for drug-related care.

While the clinic closed when funding ran out in 2016, Halpern hopes hospitals will step up to meet the need for one-stop services for pregnant opioid addicts. He continues to look for new ways to help those pregnant moms who face not only addiction, but also the stigma attached to being a pregnant woman addicted to opioids.

“Addiction is a chronic, neurological disease,” Halpern says. “If we can adjust attitudes toward addiction, we can have improved outcomes for both moms and babies.”