Opioid misuse and addiction continue to touch communities across all spectrums of age, race, socioeconomic status, gender and backgrounds. This increasingly includes pregnant women.

Expecting women with opioid-use disorders have become a unique population in the epidemic, experts say, as more babies in South Jersey and across the country are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome every year, federal reports show.

Nurses and doctors say specialized programs, education in the health-care field and wrap-around services may be able to improve outcomes for both baby and mother.

“This can be a great opportunity to get women into treatment,” said Carrie Malanga, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at the University of Pennsylvania, “but some aren’t there. They’re not going to go for it.”

Malanga presented Tuesday at Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City to more than 100 doctors, nurses, social workers and health providers across the region on ways to treat pregnant and postpartum mothers who may be addicted to heroin, fentanyl or other prescription opioids.

The conference, hosted by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and AtlantiCare, also focused on opioid exposure and use among adolescents, public health approaches to prevention methods, pediatric pain management, the legal concerns of opioid exposure in children and more.

“This is an opportunity for us to fight stigma, share new resources and services available in the hopes that one day we can cure this epidemic,” said Samantha Kiley, executive director of the AtlantiCare Foundation.

There are still not a lot of updated statistics on pregnant users, Malanga said. What research does show is that more than 5 percent of pregnant women are using an illicit drug, with the majority using marijuana and a small percent using opioids, she said.

Malanga said many women when they find out they are pregnant, they try to stop, but they can’t. It can also be difficult for health professionals to find these women to treat them during pregnancy and before birth.

“They avoid prenatal care, because of lot of them feel ashamed,” she said. “They also assume that no help will be given to them by providers and fear that they’ve already done damage to the fetus. They also fear that their pain won’t be treated.”

As a result, hospitals have seen problems in birth like pre-term labors and low birthrates.

Neonatal intensive care units are also experiencing rising rates of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or when a baby born addicted to a drug may need to be treated for withdrawal and other health complications. About 685 babies were born with the condition in 2016, according to the state Department of Health.

Mothers Matter at the University of Pennsylvania was created and designed to get pregnant women addiction treatment and prenatal care, as well as mental health treatment and other social services, Malanga said. There have been successful cases of healthy births and continued treatment, she said.

To better prevent and treat opioid and drug use in youth, Dr. Terri Randall, psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital, said it’s important to understand their behaviors.

Opioid misuse is high among 12- and 13-year-olds because they can easily access pain prescriptions at home or get them for free from friends, and one in 10 teens have reported using drugs at least once, she said.

But with improved and new prevention programs, “as bleak as the numbers may seem, drug use overall is going down” among youth, Randall said.

Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

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