SOUTHERN COLORADO — States will now be able to divert some federal funding previously reserved for the opioid epidemic to help battle growing numbers of people across the country struggling with methamphetamine and cocaine addiction. In El Paso County, evidence of addiction to methamphetamine is turning up in hospital rooms, but not in the way one might expect.
News5 obtained the El Paso County Department of Human Services numbers of substance exposed newborns for 2019. There were a total of 93 babies born exposed to substances in the county, and the two highest numbers within the substance categories were for methamphetamine and marijuana. Both had 35 babies born exposed to those substances. As far as those exposed to opioids, there were 10 children born with exposure to those in 2019.
Number of babies exposed at birth to certain substances - Total: 93
- ALCOHOL - 5
- CNSSTIMUL -5
- COCAINE - 5
- HEROIN - 8
- MARIJUANA - 35
- METHAMPHETAMINE - 35
- OTHER - 9
- OTHOPIATES - 10
- UNKNOWN - 1
- UNCATEGORIZED OR NOT LOGGED - 19
Those with DHS said they were not surprised to see such high numbers in the methamphetamine category. "I've seen children in withdrawal at the hospital, and it's a very hard thing to see... I believe methamphetamine has always been a big problem in our county, and I think that these numbers speak to a testament to the issue in our county that we are seeing a rise in the number of parents using methamphetamine while pregnant," said April Jenkins, the Children, Youth, and Family Services Intake Manager for the El Paso County Department Human Services.
The highest numbers based on zip code for babies born exposed to substances were 80909, 80910, and 80916, all with eleven births.
News5 met with the Medical Director of the NICU at Children's Hospital, Dr. Robert Kiley, to learn more about the effects of certain drugs on newborns. Dr. Kiley said typically when babies withdraw from illicit substances, they tend to experience the opposite effect of what the drug would do normally. For instance, while an adult may use marijuana to help them eat or to curb nausea, a baby may actually have difficulty eating and be prone to vomiting. However, Dr. Kiley did say those symptoms are just what they have observed, but they do not have data yet surrounding babies exposed to marijuana and they are working on obtaining that information.
Dr. Kiley said the number of babies born exposed to certain substances is more common than many people in the general public may think. "Quite an amazing uptick in methamphetamine exposure particularly, we're not surprised with the marijuana exposure... Many kids born to moms who use methamphetamine are what we call growth restricted, meaning that they're smaller. They're also at an increased risk of premature birth, as are all the illicit substances," said Dr. Kiley.
Dr. Kiley also pointed out that he believes the opioid numbers could be underreported, partially because methamphetamine addiction is more noticeable. He noted the withdrawal symptoms for babies exposed to opioids are some of the worst he's seen. "Those babies are very jittery. Sometimes, they need gloves on their hands for the opioid babies, because they are so jittery and they don't stop moving and they scratch at their face and they'll get cuts on their face from scratching themselves," said Dr. Kiley. He also said those babies can sometimes cry so much, it burns the calories they consumed, making it difficult to gain weight.
Dr. Kiley told News5 about a new program Children's Hospital is using, called Eat, Sleep, and Console. Volunteers will come and hold or cuddle with newborns exposed to drugs, which can actually decrease their stay from ten days to two days. The volunteers only do so if the parents are not available to participate. Dr. Kiley said before the program, around 80% of babies exposed to opioids were put on methadone or morphine, and now they only put around 30% on those medications.
Dr. Kiley said currently, medical professionals do not have a lot of information about the effects of marijuana on a pregnant mother. "But the things that we do know that concern us are that marijuana makes you high, therefore it acts in your brain. We do know that marijuana does cross the placenta and does concentrate in babies who have a rapidly developing brain. And we also know that marijuana not only gets into breast milk, but it gets into breast milk in higher concentrations than are in the mom's own blood. So, it concentrates in breast milk and it does get into babies at higher concentrations if they're breastfeeding," said Dr. Kiley. Children's Hospital is also researching marijuana within breast milk, and more information on that study can be found at this link.
The local numbers align closely with trends seen at the state level. The Colorado Department of Human Services provided News5 with their statewide totals of babies born exposed to substances. The information is listed in the graphs below.
- Total substance exposed newborn referrals that were entered during CY 2019 (child client must be less than 12 months old): 1,668 Referrals = This is the total number of calls CDHS received with SEN (Substance Exposed Newborn) as a concern.
The following substances and counts appeared on the 1,668 total referrals:
- Total substance exposed newborn referrals that were entered during CY 2019 (child client must be less than 12 months old) and were FOUNDED as assessments: 660 Founded = This is the number of screened in high-risk assessments that require a finding to be made and the allegations were Founded. Polysubstance use is very common so many caregivers will be positive for multiple substances and multiple findings may be made on one assessment.
The following substances and counts appeared on the 660 founded assessments:
- Total substance exposed newborn referrals that were entered during CY 2019 (child client must be less than 12 months old) and were tracked/closed as FAR: 235. FAR = This is the number of screened in assessments which were decided to be low to moderate risk at the time of referral and where assessed by child welfare in our least punitive approach. Findings are not entered for these families.
The following substances and counts appeared on the 235 FARs:
Dr. Clark McCoy, the medical director at the Front Range Clinic which is an addiction treatment center, said methamphetamine is so popular because it is potent, cheap, and can be found easily. He said the methamphetamine problem within El Paso County is just as serious as the opioid epidemic. Dr. McCoy also said there are typically three parts to treating methamphetamine addiction. "One, is there's medication that can help with the physical symptoms of withdrawal. There is behavioral therapies that can help correct underlying abnormal behaviors associated with addiction. And the third part is social, trying to change someone's environment," said Dr. McCoy.
We also reached out to those with Pueblo County, who said they had reports of 100 babies being exposed to substances at birth in 2019, but do not keep track of which type of drugs. However, those from the Southern Colorado Harm Reduction Association did tell us around half of their clients have admitted to using methamphetamine.
Those with Front Range Clinic said if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, to give them a call at (719) 419-7735. Dr. McCoy said they can typically see a client within one or two days.