Addiction affects more than just adults.
According to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, it is estimated that 10 to 11 percent of all births are “affected by prenatal alcohol or illicit drug exposure,” a problem that seems to be growing.
As is the case with any problem related to substance abuse, the earlier doctors become aware of the problem, the easier it is to treat. That’s why a new report from the Utah-based reference laboratory ARUP, which found that a child’s umbilical cord can be used to determine whether a child was born with an addiction, is a potential breakthrough in treating infant addiction.
“Every child comes into this world with (an umbilical cord) and it can be sent the minute the baby is born,” Gwen McMillin, a medical director at the Clinical Toxicology Laboratories at ARUP, said in a press release. And according to McMillin, testing the child’s umbilical cord is a fast alternative to previous methods of testing, such as waiting for the child’s first dirty diaper.
According to the ARUP press release, umbilical cords are ideal for this type of testing because of their “practical size, easy transportability and accessibility.”
ARUP is the second lab to rely on cord testing, according to Medical Daily, and it has facilitated treating addiction cases quickly.
“Like any addict who suddenly ceases their drug intake, babies have severe physiological withdrawal symptoms,” Medical Daily’s Ali Venosa wrote on July 18. “Newborns born with a drug addiction suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome, and may have symptoms like diarrhea, seizures, sensitivity to light and hyperactive reflexes,” all symptoms that need quick and constant care.
But as Big Think’s Robert Montenegro points out, the procedure itself still has certain kinks and surprises. Namely, that testing for addiction in newborns doesn’t require the consent of the mother.
“The discovery of illicit drugs in the umbilical cord can be deemed abuse and get the baby turned over to social services,” Montenegro wrote. “On one hand, the test could be construed an invasion of privacy. On the other, it's important that mothers who might have been up to no good while pregnant can't resist the test, thus putting their child at major risk.”
Potential ethical quandaries aside, the procedure has already provided new data to help doctors combat infancy addiction. For example, Medical Daily reports that marijuana is the most common drug affecting infants. Opioids and prescription painkillers come next.
“The symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome depend on the type of drug the mother used, how long it takes for the body to metabolize and eliminate the drug, how much of the drug she was taking and for how long,” McMillin said in the press release.
But it’s also important to remember this isn’t only about the children.
“This is also about getting mothers the care and support they need,” McMillin continued, “through rehab and social services so they can take care of their children.”
JJ Feinauer is a writer for Deseret News National. Email: email@example.com, Twitter: jjfeinauer.