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Maine’s Rate of Substance-Exposed Newborns Is Much Higher Than National Average

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A January report shows Maine has well above the national average of substance-exposed newborns.

According to state health officials, the problem has been known for years and is actually getting better after peaking in 2016.

"We're very concerned about this issue, it's a top priority," said Dr. Anne Belisle, chief child health officer for Maine's Department of Health and Human Services.

According to Belisle, Maine is in a "high-tier" compared to U.S averages with 7-8% of all 2019 Maine births, or 858 newborns, being substance-affected.

In 2016, the total was 1,024 infants.

"We have seen a decline in the past several years," said Belisle.

Some of that downswing is attributable to work by doctors like Alan Picarillo at Maine Medical Center, who applies a program called "Eat, Sleep, Console" to opioid-affected newborns at the hospital.

"We radically changed our approach to the opioid-exposed newborns," said Picarillo, adding a decrease in stigma has also prompted more parents to come forward to seek treatment.

"That has made an unbelievable difference," he said.

Instead of focusing on treatment through medicine, Maine Medical Center's program encourages parents and families of opioid-affected infants to spend more time with the babies, with emphasis on care like having skin-to-skin contact.

"If we can keep the babies and moms together," said Picarillo, "the outcomes are just so much better."

But the path toward a full solution to the problem, according to doctors, is prevention by educating young people not to use drugs like opioids in the first place.

"Clearly, it's prevention," said Picarillo. "It starts grade school, in middle school and high school."

According to Belisle, the state is already planning such an effort.

"That'll be a shift into working with adolescents and young adults," she said. "It's just going to take a while to get that point, and we're hopeful, but there's still a lot of work to be done."

Maine officials expect approximately $5 million in federal grant money they've just received to help solve the problem, as well.

However, Maine's DHHS also says its numbers of substance-affected infants may temporarily go up as more mothers seek treatment and their cases are recorded.

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