Heroin's affect on the unborn: Treating pregnant addicts in Cleveland

Posted at 4:49 PM, Feb 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-10 16:49:12-05

The Heroin epidemic is reaching places you'd probably never think- medical professionals in Cleveland are taking special precautions with pregnant women. More and more of them are addicted.

Doctor Lulu Zhao, with University Hospitals, sees it first hand.

The MD and professor holds a special license to prescribe and work with pregnant mothers addicted to heroin.

"We ask all women if they struggle with substance abuse," more and more women are answering yes. 

Dr. Zhao told News 5 a lot more goes into treating a woman with a drug dependency and it's not all medical.

"They require a lot more help both before and after delivery," Dr. Zhao said. 

But what may be surprising?  A pregnant woman, addicted to heroin is not medically advised to quit.

"There's medical risks with trying to just quit. Especially by yourself. You're going to withdrawal, and that's dangerous for the baby," Dr. Zhao told News 5.

She explained quitting cold turkey can lead to serious complications in the pregnancy.

"Sounds crazy until you realize they could have miscarriages from withdrawal. Sounds crazy until you realize statistics show they'll use again, then there are medical and legal risks," she said. 

Dr. Zhao said women go through consistent drug screens, and she can prescribe a legal opioid to be used instead. Typically Suboxone - a drug that's safer for the mother and the child she's carrying.

"There are struck requirements for tracking those patients."

Dr. Zhao said babies aren't always born with a dependency but babies that are, get additional treatment at the hospital, before going home.

"We admit the baby to the hospital and help the baby transition smoothly from an environment where they were exposed to opioids to an environment where they won't need it anymore," she explained. 

Doctors talk about treatment options with every mother after delivery. Often a social services case is opened, but not always. Dr. Zhao said most of the time the mother and baby are not separated, and that is in their best interest.