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Number of Babies Born Dependent on Drugs Growing, ETSU Researching to Find Answers

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- Right now our region has one of the biggest populations of babies born dependent on drugs. Out of the entire state, the East Tennessee region from Knoxville to Northeast TN accounts for nearly half of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS.

There are still many questions surrounding NAS, and the state, universities, and local organizations are working to find answers.

“We’re not going to be able to address that challenge as rapidly as we’d like to until we can get our arms around, and I think that we’re beginning to do that now as a region, as a state, as a nation on the whole substance abuse disorder epidemic,” Dr. John Dreyzehner, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health said.

The state keeps a database of how many babies are born with NAS and in what counties. “They do continue to increase,” Dreyzehner said.

Now East Tennessee State University is trying to help find the answers to many of the unknowns of NAS by starting a database.

“There’s an urgent need for a long term study, what happens to these babies well into the future, school systems are concerned, we really don’t know the long-term effects.” Anglea Hagaman, drug abuse research program director with the College of Public Health at ETSU said.

The Junior League of Johnson City gave $20,000 to ETSU’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment to create the NAS database.

Hagaman said their research will have impacts right away.

“There are different hospitals participating, we hope to partner with a variety of them and they’ll be able to communicate with each other about what’s working with babies so right away I believe outcomes will improve,” Hagaman said.

Non-profits are also trying to find answers. Johnson City-based Families Free is on the front lines to try and help moms and babies born with NAS.

Hospitals and government agencies refer women to seek treatment with the organization. “We have had 48 referrals of women in the past three months,” Families Free Executive Director Lisa Tipton said.

Tipton said they are partnering with ETSU’s early childhood development department to track the outcomes of women who complete treatment.

“I think it’s important to really be able to tell a story of what really creates change in the life of a woman and her baby and their family in the long term,” Tipton said.

It’ll be paid for with part of $100,000 the governor recently allocated to Families Free, according to Tipton.

“We’ve been able to hire staff, we’ve been able to enhance our presence at the hospitals, and to have more boots on the ground out in the community,” Tipton said.

So far this year, 779 babies have been born in Tennessee experiencing withdrawals from drugs right out of the womb, the highest number the state has seen in recorded years.

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