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Fox 17 Investigates: Babies born addicted in Tennessee

(WZTV)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- About a thousand babies born in Tennessee last year were dependent on drugs.

But it's not just heroin and illegal substances.

The rise of prescription addiction is hooking those who never had a choice.

TriStar Summit Medical Center NICU Nurse Patti Scott says, "I think you'd be astounded by the number of women who say, 'I didn't know this would hurt my baby.' Educated, intelligent women."

Scott says often times, pregnant women taking painkillers think the medicines are okay for their baby because their doctor prescribed them.

And for the mothers taking too large of a dose, their babies start showing signs of dependency at about 24 hours of age, diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

Withdrawal signs range from fussiness and irritability to tremors and in severe cases, seizures.

Vanderbilt Children's Hospital Neonatologist Dr. Stephen Patrick has actually found in a group of 110 pregnant women in Tennessee last year, almost a third had at least one opioid prescription during pregnancy for pain relief.

None of them taking these drugs illegally.

Dr. Patrick says, "Part of what we're learning is addiction is a medical disease and it's not a moral failing. That's a big shift for a lot of us."

Dr. Patrick says nationwide in 2012, every 25-minutes, an infant had been born with drug withdrawal.

Dr. Patrick's research has found about one in 50 babies born in Tennessee are drug dependent.

That's about three times the national average.

The state health department says in the last week of June 2016, 35 babies born that week showed signs of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

And the problem is even worse in East Tennessee.

Fox 17 asks why the state's numbers are so high.

According to Addiction Campuses, a lot of the opioid addiction epidemic that we have today can be blamed on over-prescribing medications.

Doula Amber Mohr points to the CDC's ranking, tying the volunteer state with Alabama as the most prescribed states with 143 prescriptions per 100 people.

That's almost one and a half prescriptions per person in the state.

Mohr is among those who believe this has a lot to do with how we think about pain and how that has changed over the decades.

"We're now in a society where no pain is acceptable. Discomfort is not acceptable. We've become so accustomed to numbing every amount of pain and discomfort that the doctors provide you with a prescription-you never have to feel a physical pain."

She believes this has led to a problem that is now affecting everyone.

"Every person watching this broadcast right now has somebody within their social circle and within their family circle who is struggling with substance abuse, whether they know it or not."

Researchers are studying right now whether there are long-term effects on infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

Preliminary findings discuss anything from attention problems to altering of DNA and NAS babies more likely to end up in state custody.

In part 2 of this special report airing 9pm Thursday, July 14, Fox 17 shows the potential cost of drug dependent births to taxpayers and why putting these mothers in jail could be making the problem worse.

If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, there is 24-hour help through Addiction Campuses.

Just call 1.888.614.2251 or find them online by clicking here.

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