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Doctors voice concern about opioid addiction in women, and the impact on newborns

TAMPA —While the opioid epidemic touches people in all kinds of communities, physicians and researchers are finding out that painkiller addiction affects men and women differently.

"Opiate use has historically been predominantly by men, but we’ve seen that gap narrow significantly in the past 10 years," said Dr. Kelly Dunn, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Dunn is in Tampa Bay this week joining other doctors from Johns Hopkins and its local All Children’s pediatric hospital for a series of events titled "A Woman’s Journey." On Wednesday, they spoke to a nearly sold out crowd at the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center in Tampa about the factors that affect women’s health. The major themes: opiate addiction in women, its impact on newborns, advancements in genetics and microbiome gut health.

Women are more likely to experience side effects when taking prescription pain killers, like nausea and other mild ailments, whether they’re taking the medication as prescribed or over-using it, Dunn said. Women also don’t respond to addiction treatments as favorably as men do, Dunn said. As such, it can take longer for women to recover.

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"We don’t know why this happens," Dunn said. "More women are using opiates but our success in treating them for addiction is not keeping up. It’s a distinct problem that we haven’t tracked much before. It’s unique to find (addiction) problems that are divided by gender."

At Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, physicians in the maternal, fetal and neonatal institute see two to four babies born every day that are addicted to opiates, said Dr. Sandra Brooks, associate medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital.

"They shake, tremble, cry and don’t sleep because they go through withdrawal," Brooks said. "These babies don’t grab the headlines because their mothers aren’t street drug addicts injecting drugs. Their mothers could be anyone — a sister, a friend, someone in this room. Opioid use is a slippery slope."

The long-term effects on babies born addicted to opiates is mostly unknown because there is little research on the topic. The institute is hoping to change that, said Dr. Prabhu Parimi, the institute’s director.

"Our vision is treat at-risk mothers and babies from pre-conception until early childhood," Parimi said. "This is a relatively new phenomenon, but we do know that it alters the structure of the brain even before the baby is born."

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Parimi noted that there are no known cases of babies born with visible birth defects, however.

He said that at-risk mothers of children born addicted to drugs, such as opioids, require more care too. But the stigma attached to being an addict often keeps them from seeking out medical care until late into a pregnancy.

"Once a baby is born in the ICU, all we can do is damage control," Parimi said.

Dunn’s takeaway message to the hundred or so women who attended Wednesday’s event was to be open with their doctors about prescription use, in an effort to dismantle the stigma attached.

"Tolerance and withdrawal occurs even when patients take drugs as prescribed. It’s a natural occurrence in the body," she said. "So patients shouldn’t feel concerned talking to their doctors about it. They’ve done nothing wrong."

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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