Heroin Epidemic: A heartbreaking look at the innocent victims

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) - The opioid epidemic has reached uncharted territory in Western North Carolina. Not only are the victims getting younger, some haven't even been born yet.

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Mission Health said close to 400 babies were born to addicted mothers in 2016.

It's such a dramatic increase, even hospital officials are alarmed by it.

"We've seen the number of babies born exposed increase every year," Vice President and Medical Director of Mission Children's Hospital Dr. Susan Mims said.

Dr. Mims said in 2016, they saw a 100 percent increase in babies born into drug addictions from the year before.

"This past year, we hit almost 400, and that is nearly 10 percent of the babies born at Mission Hospital that are testing positive for some substance," she said.

Dr. Mims said for most babies, it's an opioid or a combination of different drugs, and it leaves newborns entering life immediately facing a painful withdrawal that could last months.

"In some cases, when they have symptoms, we need to treat them with medicines until they fully get there that withdrawal period," she explained.

Mission Health said it's not only an emotional and physical process but a costly one, as well, with few resources available.

"Access to behavioral health services has been a real challenge in this community and in this region, and that impacts our ability to care for the baby and set the mom and the baby up for long-term success," Dr. Mims said.

She added that the hospital is now training staff members on how to deal with this issue, and are looking at every way to bring more help to those impacted.

Other agencies are just as alarmed by the data and are trying to help.

The Department of Health and Human Services said they do everything they can to protect the baby and the bond with the mother.

"That's a tragic situation, and what we want to do is keep the baby safe. Always first and foremost, keep the baby safe, but not break that bond between the mother and the baby while the mother gets the help that she needs," Jim Holland, with Buncombe County DHHS, said.

Holland said often times the child goes to a relative or the state while the mother overcomes her addiction. But, he said even moms wanting to get clean often have a hard time getting the help they need.

"There's not enough always for someone to go right away into treatment," Holland explained.

He said their department has one year to work out a reunification plan, but he added that bringing a healthy mom and healthy baby back together is a huge challenge.

"The reality is there is so much problem and so little solution, so little resources," Holland said.

Mission Health has a hotline set up for expectant mothers struggling with an addiction: 1-800-532-6302.

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