By Laura Ungar, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - More than half the babies in University Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit one day this month were suffering from drug withdrawal - one sucking licorice-flavored morphine to ease his tremors and near-constant crying, another so sensitive to light and sound that he slept in a dark isolation room.
They are the tiniest victims of Kentucky's prescription pill epidemic, and their numbers are soaring.
Kentucky has seen its hospitalizations for addicted newborns climb from 29 in 2000 to 730 last year. The state's 2,400% increase dwarfs by comparison a disturbing national rise of 330% found in a study that examined hospitalizations from 2000 to 2009.
"It's a silent epidemic that's going on out there," said Audrey Tayse Haynes, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. "You need to say: 'Stop the madness. This is too much.'"
The skyrocketing numbers reflect the enormity of Kentucky's prescription drug abuse problem, which is among the nation's worst. It kills about 1,000 Kentuckians a year and wrecks thousands more lives in a state plagued by doctor shortages, high levels of chronic pain and illness, and too little drug abuse treatment.
Van Ingram, executive director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, requested statistics on Kentucky infant hospitalizations - collected for the first time - after hearing that the state's pain pill explosion was fueling a dramatic rise in addicted newborns. He soon realized the state's epidemic is threatening to claim a second generation.
"I was blown away," he said. "We need to slow the tide."
While state officials and doctors say the hospitalization statistics reflect newborns suffering withdrawal from all types of drugs, they blame prescription pills for the dramatic increase. And even as growing awareness and better diagnoses play a role in the rising numbers, they say rampant abuse is driving the rise.
Melissa Lueloff, 28, of Louisville, who gave birth to an addicted girl two years ago, said her cravings at the time for OxyContin, Opana and cocaine ruled her life even during pregnancy - "I just couldn't stop."
Neveah was born a month premature and spent five days in a neonatal intensive care unit struggling with withdrawal, constantly clenching her tiny fists and whining in pain.