ORLANDO, Fla. -- Florida's prescription-drug epidemic -- already responsible for nearly seven deaths a day -- is taking its toll on the youngest, most vulnerable in its communities: newborns.
In 2009, nearly 1,000 babies born in Florida hospitals were treated for drug-withdrawal syndrome. They're irritable. They don't eat well. They can spend days, even weeks, detoxing.
And the number is skyrocketing.
From 2006 to 2009, there was a 173 percent increase in newborns treated at hospitals for drug-withdrawal syndrome in Florida, according to Agency for Health Care Administration records obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
The most recent data show no signs of a slowdown. During the first half of 2010, 635 cases were reported.
Though the records don't specify which narcotics those babies tested positive for, Central Florida doctors say most withdrawal cases locally involve prescription drugs.
"We see them here almost daily," said Dr. Matthew Seibel, a pediatric hospitalist at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. "It is standard operating procedure around here, unfortunately."
Janet Colbert, a founding member of the STOPP Now (Stop the Organized Pill Pushers) organization, said she, too, sees the impact of Florida's prescription-drug epidemic all too often at the Broward County hospital where she works in the neonatal-intensive-care unit.
"I kept seeing the torture these babies are going through," Colbert said. "This one baby, he couldn't even feed. He was screaming -- his face was just quivering so badly he couldn't even get his face around the nipple to feed -- and I just said, 'I have to do something.' "
It used to be that infants born with drug-withdrawal symptoms were more likely to be suffering from a crack-cocaine addiction. But doctors, nurses and social workers in Central Florida say cases of "crack babies" are dwindling, while cases of prescription-drug dependence are becoming more prevalent.
State child-welfare officials here have taken notice of the surge. The problem was escalating so much in Orange County that in 2008, the local Department of Children and Families office brought back its Drug Dependent Newborn unit, DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner said.
It's the only DCF unit in the state dedicated to serving newborns dependent on drugs and includes three investigators, a supervisor and program administrator.
Last year, the unit received 206 cases. Investigators spend their days communicating with hospital social workers and the mothers whose babies tested positive for drugs.
When they make their initial hospital visit, the DCF investigators take with them a 10-page questionnaire that will detail everything -- from whether the mother disclosed her drug use to what drugs or alcohol she used during each trimester.
Often, the babies are allowed to go home with the mothers.
Investigators work with the mothers to get them plugged into services such as Healthy Start. Through case management, mothers can get parenting classes, counseling, and assistance with making doctors' appointments and follow-up care for the newborn.
"Our first goal is to stabilize the family unit," said Courtney Barnett, supervisor of the DDN unit.
At the Center for Drug Free Living's Addictions Receiving Facility near downtown Orlando, the number of people being treated for prescription-drug abuse -- including pregnant women -- is on the rise.
Doctors have treated pregnant women with methadone, often prescribed in place of oxycodone for pain management, since the 1960s.
That method still stands today, because women who abuse drugs such as oxycodone cannot go cold turkey and stop taking the drug while pregnant. Doctors say it's too stressful on the mother's body, which causes stress on the developing baby.
Doctors would rather have a steady level of methadone in the developing baby than a mother who takes other drugs, said Dr. Stacy E. Seikel, medical director at the Center for Drug Free Living.
"When the mother is in withdrawal, the baby is in withdrawal," she said. "If the baby is in and out of withdrawal the entire pregnancy ... the baby can't grow and mature well."
Unlike infants born addicted to crack, when babies are born to mothers who abuse prescription drugs, they are physically dependent on the drug for a period of time but suffer no long-term effects, Seikel said.
"It seems totally backwards," Seikel said of treating pregnant women with methadone, but "this is the right thing to do."
At Winnie Palmer, which has the busiest labor-and-delivery unit in the state, doctors and nurses are all too familiar with the symptoms of a drug-dependent newborn: They sweat, have really tight muscles, diarrhea, and they scream.
Unlike adult addicts, doctors often can't use methadone to wean the babies off the drug if that's what their mother used. Usually, doctors use tincture of opium to wean the baby off.
"They're going through withdrawal," Seibel said. "And they're not happy babies."
Officials say the increase in drug-dependent newborns is further evidence of Florida's -- and the nation's -- growing use of prescription drugs.
Florida officials and law enforcers liken today's prescription-drug problem to that of the cocaine epidemic in the 1980s.
Drug dealers from nearby states, dubbed "pillbillies," travel to Florida, where doctors in "pill mills" are willing to dole out addictive, powerful painkillers and sedatives such as oxycodone and alprazolam.
From October 2008 to March 2009, 49 of the nation's top 50 dispensing doctors of oxycodone were in Florida, a grand jury reported. And according to one national study, the use of prescription pain medication increased 400 percent from 1998 to 2008.
Carol Burkett, director of the Orange County Office for a Drug Free Community, has told local elected leaders that we are becoming a "prescription nation."
"We have a problem here," she said. "When over 50 percent of Americans are taking at least one prescription pill a day ... that's quickly what we're becoming."
Former state Sen. Dave Aronberg, tapped to head Attorney General Pam Bondi's recently announced anti-pill-mill initiative, called the newborn-drug-withdrawal statistics "horrifying."
"Prescription-drug abuse has become the number one public-safety threat to Florida," he said.
Given that, it surprised many when Gov. Rick Scott abolished the Office of Drug Control in January.
Then, last week, he proposed abolishing a long-awaited computer database that would track certain types of medications people receive, a tool that supporters tout as a key weapon in the fight against prescription-drug abuse.
"We're not really sure what Governor Scott is doing here," said Colbert, whose organization, STOPP Now, stages monthly protests at Broward County pain clinics. "Every time we admit another baby like this, I wonder, 'Why isn't somebody doing something about this?' It's like their life doesn't matter."
(Staff writer Tonya Alanez contributed to this report.)
(c) 2011, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.