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Number of babies born exposed to drugs in N.H. has skyrocketed

Patrick Sison/Associated Press

Over the course of a decade, the number of babies born already exposed to drugs in New Hampshire quintupled, according to a researcher at the University of New Hampshire.

In 2005, 52 babies were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which occurs when a baby is exposed to drugs in the womb, the university said. By 2015, that number had risen to 269.

The syndrome appears most often in babies whose mothers were taking opioids during pregnancy, said Kristin Smith, a family demographer at UNH and the author of the recent report.

“Both alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy have proven negative health consequences for children, and the adverse effects are magnified when combined with opiates,” she said in the statement.

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The research comes as states around the country are working to stem an opioid epidemic. Government figures released this month said 63,600 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, up from about 52,000 in 2015. Two-thirds of last year’s drug deaths — about 42,000 — involved opioids, a category that includes heroin, methadone, prescription pain pills like OxyContin, and fentanyl.

In New Hampshire, the babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in 2015 account for 2.4 percent of births in the state, and that number is projected to rise, she said. Smith found, based on anecdotal evidence, that a recent change to the state’s Child Protection Act designed to encourage the Department of Children and Families to provide treatment actually had a “chilling effect” on women seeking care during pregnancy.

“One thing that came up enough for me to want to draw attention to it was this concern they have about unintended consequence of policies,” Smith said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “They have a fear that if the [Department of Children and Families] is contacting them, their child will be taken away.”

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The act does not require that the department become involved in the family or mandate the child’s removal, but oftentimes when women are contacted by the department, they assume the worst, she said.

Women who use opioids while pregnant are also likely to be using other drugs, suffering from mental health issues, and experiencing poverty, homelessness, and domestic violence, the university said. Smith said in order to address the numerous issues at play, recovery programs must be comprehensive.


Alyssa Meyers can be reached at alyssa.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.