Area doctors counting how many meth babies born

The methamphetamine problem may have grown so huge in Cowlitz County that an average of more than a baby a day born at St. John Medical Center might have the drug in their systems.

As local doctors and mental health experts try to get a handle on the growing problem — including a Friday appeal to U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, for help — a new study could point to an even graver need to attack the problem.

Already, doctors have identified between 10 percent and 20 percent of babies born at St. John with meth in their systems. Many of those babies start their lives going through drug withdrawal.

But if Dr. Aidan deRenne’s suspicions are correct, twice that many — perhaps between 30 percent and 40 percent — of the 1,200 babies born at St. John Medical Center each year are exposed to meth during their final six months in the womb.

DeRenne and Dr. Shawn Aaron, a PeaceHealth doctor who heads the local association of family physicians, will collect samples of the first bowel movements of all babies born at St. John during a six-month period. Unlike blood or urine, those early stools retain measurable traces of any drugs the mother used during the final six months of the pregnancy, deRenne said.

“I think (the number of drug babies) is just going to blow us away,” said deRenne, a pediatrician at Child and Adolescent Clinic and head of the local pediatrician association. “We’ve got a bigger problem than we really know right now.”

He based his estimate on his own experience with patients, discussions with other doctors, maternity nurses and drug-prevention experts, and the results of similar tests conducted elsewhere.

“I hope I’m wrong, let me put it that way,” he said. “Both Shawn and I were so tired of seeing drug-addicted babies up in our NICU (neonatal intensive care unit).”

The way the study is designed, it can’t tie the positive drug tests in the babies to individual women, deRenne said. Instead, the lab simply will test one sample per baby born at the hospital to determine how many had drugs in their system when they left the womb. Because the tests are anonymous and don’t require a medical procedure, new mothers won’t have to consent to the testing.

The results could help attract grant money or other funding to help the community’s pregnant women get off drugs and to treat children harmed by their mothers’ drug use, said deRenne and Dr. Phyllis Cavens, a partner at Child and Adolescent.

The study should begin in about a month and collect roughly 600 samples. The cost of lab tests will make up most of the study’s cost, pegged at up to $30,000. Kaiser Permanente is paying for the lab work and PeaceHealth is contributing staff time, deRenne said.

Cavens and other medical and mental health officials invited Baird, who already has pushed for funding to fight meth, to the Friday discussion for several health-related issues, including soliciting his help in finding ways to halt the epidemic of meth-addicted babies. “Meth is our number-one community issue,” said Eric Yakovich, chief executive officer for Lower Columbia Mental Health Center in Longview. “It just dominates the use of our resources here in this county.”

Baird pledged more work on the problem and talked about the idea of finding more money to help children harmed by the meth epidemic, which he called “social corrosion.”

He said he speaks to students about the drug’s perils every chance he gets, but many teens roll their eyes. Still, he warns them, “It’s a decision basically to end your life, if you start (using) methamphetamines.”

Source: By Eric Apalategui www.tdn.com Sep 19, 2004

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