By Brett Larson, December 8, 2014
A nationwide epidemic is claiming new victims in the Mille Lacs area: babies born addicted to opiates, both prescription painkillers and illegal drugs like heroin.
Hundreds of babies in communities across the state have been born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). As with other health problems, the impact is greater in reservation communities than in the general population due to historical trauma and inequities in income and access to social and health-related services.
According to Sam Moose, Commissioner of Health and Human Services for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the reservation is one of the hardest hit communities in Minnesota.
“These babies are sacred!” Sam said. “They are spirits that come directly from the Creator. We all need to make sure that their mothers and fathers are supportive in their care.”
Twenty-eight percent of babies with NAS in Minnesota are born to Native Americans, even though Native Americans make up only about two percent of the state’s population. In other words, American Indian newborns are 8.7 times more likely than white babies to be born with NAS. Babies of other ethnic groups in Minnesota are less likely than white babies to be born with NAS. The first thing a woman should do if she is pregnant and struggling with dependency is to see a health care provider, Sam said, either a public health nurse or a doctor. He said there is medical care available that can help the mother and her baby. Those who don’t know where to turn can also call the 24-hour crisis hotline at 866-867-4006.
Family members and friends also need to step in to ensure that pregnant women are receiving prenatal care.
“If you know a woman is pregnant and struggling with dependency, please reach out and offer support,” Sam said. “It’s critical for the community — mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers — to look out for our next generation. And if you find yourself chemically dependent and pregnant, you’re not alone. We want to be there for you.”
Long-term effects of opiate addiction on babies are not known, but the short-term effects are terrible in themselves.
According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms depend on the type and amount of drugs the mother used but may include high-pitched or excessive crying, fever, hyperactive reflexes, irritability, poor feeding, rapid breathing, seizures, sleep problems, sweating, trembling, vomiting, diarrhea, and slow weight gain.
Drug use also increases the likelihood of birth defects, low birth weight, premature birth, small head circumference, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and problems with development and behavior.
Treatment may include prescribing a drug similar to the one the mother used and slowly decreasing the dose over time to help wean the baby and relieve the symptoms. Breast-feeding, reducing noise and lights, gentle rocking, and swaddling can also help.
There is also a great deal of expense associated with NAS. In addition to medical costs, babies may need to be placed in foster care — which is costly both for the tribe and the wider community. If drug use and addiction in the family continue, the risks to the child also continue.
For more than a decade, communities across the country have been trying to stem the tide of opiate addiction, which has surged with the increased use of prescription painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet, and Oxycontin.
“This continues to be one our greatest threats to who we are as a people,” Sam said. “How we prepare our next generation to carry us into the future is paramount. We have to take the necessary steps to address this issue.”
The Mille Lacs Band has been collaborating with tribes and the state of Minnesota to combat the problem, but more needs to be done — and soon — to prevent children from being born addicted.
Unfortunately, the people most in need often avoid the systems of support that are available, from prenatal care to social services that can provide nutrition, housing, and financial assistance. Everyone in the community can help by making sure all pregnant women are receiving the health services they and their babies need.
Sam emphasized that opiate addiction and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome are part of a larger problem with chemical dependency that is the result of historical trauma and decades of unequal access to healthcare and social services.
“It’s against everything we are taught as Aninshinaabe, however the effects of historical trauma and self-destructive behaviors continue to impact our most vulnerable: children,” Sam said. “Our children, as with many other minority communities, continue to pay the price.”