A drug overdose epidemic has seized our country, tightening its grip and raising the numbers to alarming heights. More than 72,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, a large number of which were opioid related, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This makes the number of opioid overdoses more than five times higher than it was in 1999, merely 20 years ago. Even more terrifying is the fact that this calamity extends its effects to pregnant women who abuse painkillers during pregnancy. The CDC confirmed that from 1999 to 2014 the rate of pregnant women misusing opioids has nearly quadrupled. This is a major public health issue and many mothers do not realize that their abuse can consequently affect their children through breastfeeding.
Samantha Jones, a resident of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is the epitome of the deadly indirect effects of opioids. The 30-year-old was the mother of an 11-week-old boy, RJ. Her son was primarily breastfed, but Jones feared he was not drinking enough milk or getting as much sleep as he should be. She then switched over to a baby milk formula to continue feeding him. At approximately 3 a.m. on April 2, she heard RJ crying and was too tired to make formula milk and proceeded to nurse the infant. In the morning, around 6:30 a.m., she fed RJ formulated milk and an hour later she woke up from a nap and was alarmed to see RJ pale with bloody mucus coming out of his nose. She immediately called 911 before attempting to perform CPR on the baby. The ambulance brought RJ to the hospital, but he was tragically announced dead by 8:30 a.m. An autopsy was performed on the infant and the results revealed that the baby had a combination of fatal drugs in his system. There were traces of methamphetamine, amphetamine, as well as methadone, a strong opioid. The examiner, who performed the autopsy, said that RJ had ingested these drugs through breastfeeding. The affidavit states that Jones was prescribed the methadone since pregnancy to enable her to cope with her addiction to such opioid painkillers. But she declined to comment on the others drugs found in the baby’s system.
Jones’ lawyer says that since her arrest, his client has been “completely in a state of depression." He stated that her arrest and these added charges “kicked Jones when she was already down, dealing with the death of her child." Jones had a preliminary hearing last Wednesday and Deputy District Attorney Kristin M. McElroy stated, "We are not alleging that this was an intentional killing of this baby, but it certainly was reckless to know these drugs were in your body and continue to breastfeed." Jones was charged with a criminal homicide charge and is awaiting her formal arraignment on Sept. 28.
Generally, methadone is considered a safe treatment for opioid addiction for nursing and pregnant women. But it is warned that infants that are exposed to opioids in-utero are at risk for developing some form of neonatal abstinence syndrome. Such a condition causes the baby to undergo withdrawal when they are no longer in contact with opioids. When breastfeeding, an opioid-using mother secretes a minute amount of opioids, which the baby then consumes. This is usually an imperceptible amount. But the problem arises when opioids are mixed with unprescribed drugs which further increase the chances of the child facing detrimental effects.
Situations like this should be handled delicately. Substance abuse is a clinical condition and thus requires intervention. In a study done by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 21.5 million American adults faced a substance abuse disorder in 2014. Individuals who are seeking help for managing their substance abuse should not be criminally charged. Indictment of those seeking help will only increase public ramifications and stigmas, and, as a result, would deter mothers with substance abuse history from breastfeeding all together. Breastfeeding goes deeper than basic nutrition. A mother’s milk not only provides the baby with vitamins and nutrients it needs for the first six months, but also contains disease-fighting agents that protect the baby from sicknesses. In addition to the microscopic benefits of breastmilk, breastfeeding consists of skin-to-skin contact between mother and child and thus creates an unparalleled bond between the two. Breastfeeding should be encouraged to all, even those who have had a history of substance abuse. But it is highly imperative that a history of drugs, as well as any current consumption, should be disclosed to your doctor before any steps are taken.
Harleen Singh is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. Her column, "Here's to Your Health," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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