As the number of opioid-exposed babies born in the U.S. has peaked, the crisis is reshaping life in some Appalachian communities, where calls for new approaches to care for these babies and their mothers are growing louder.

Every 15 minutes in the U.S. in 2014, a baby was born exposed to opioids. The latest numbers available from the federal government show that in that year, 32,000 babies were born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS. These children experience withdrawal symptoms after birth from the opioids their mothers used during pregnancy, which can include anything from fever and difficulty feeding to trouble breathing and seizures. The trend of babies affected by NAS parallels that of the nation’s opioid epidemic, peaking in recent years, and have hit many Appalachian communities especially hard.

This is the case in East Tennessee, where NAS rates have hovered far above the nation’s since the early 2000s. There, Dr. Craig Towers has opened a clinic that provides pregnant women in Tennessee and the region access to medication-assisted treatment, detox options, prenatal care and health care services, and monitoring for children and their mothers after birth. 

Tennessee has rolled out a number of programs aimed at stemming the NAS crisis, including increasing access to drug screening and treatment for pregnant women and family planning services. In other Appalachian states, like West Virginia and Kentucky, medical professionals and advocates are expanding access to these same services, while also pooling resources to aid children born with NAS who are now entering the public school system.

Still, pregnant women who struggle with addiction face intense stigmas across the region, sometimes preventing them from accessing basic prenatal care, but calls for new approaches to treat addiction during pregnancy and neonatal abstinence syndrome are growing stronger. 

Born Exposed introduces us to some of the loudest voices driving Appalachia’s battle against the twin epidemics of opioid abuse and NAS, and explores their impacts on the people, families and communities most affected by the crisis.  

Born Exposed is a project of 100 Days in Appalachia, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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