Opioid abuse in the United States remains an epidemic. By 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicated that more than 500,000 people admitted to using heroin. Approximately two million admitted to being addicted to opioid pain relievers. By the fall of 2017, President Donald Trump declared that opioid use in the country was a public health emergency. However, news reports rarely disclose the youngest victims of opioid abuse. They are the babies born to addicted mothers.

The opioid withdrawal symptoms suffered by newborns includes an extreme sensitivity to light and sound, inconsolable crying and trembling. Newborns may also suffer seizures. The long-term effects on the children as they grow is also unknown.

In Illinois alone, approximately three of every 1,000 infants born in the state suffered withdrawal symptoms in 2016. Neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS has reportedly risen 53 percent over a six-year period. Providing care for the infants also comes at an extensive cost to hospitals and to the state. Medicaid programs often become burdened with the bill. Healthy newborns are typically hospitalized for up to two days after birth. On the other hand, babies undergoing withdrawal from opioids require hospitalizations for up to 30 days. The cost of normal neonatal care averages $4,000. The cost of caring for infants suffering withdrawal can rise to more than $120,000.

The problem in Illinois and in other states includes the lack of hospitals that have the training and room to treat the babies. Healthcare professionals often lack the education and experience needed to properly diagnose NAS. Some infants might be inappropriately diagnosed as having a seizure disorder without realizing the underlying cause. As the opioid epidemic continues, there is no relief in sight.

Mercy Health Hospital in Rockford is one of the few facilities capable of providing the care that NAS babies need. In recent years, the facility has cared for an increasing number of newborns, as the hospital commonly receives transfers from 15 other hospitals. The Rockford health care facility has a 52-bed NICU along with on staff specialists.

In lieu of the problem, various hospitals have decided to construct new NICUs. Swedish-American Hospital currently cares for NAS infants. However, the NICU is less specialized to handle the needs of the babies. However, the facility plans to open a new unit in 2019.