At the urging of Gov. Doug Ducey, Arizona lawmakers approved sweeping new regulations of opioids designed to curb the state’s sprawling opioid epidemic, which has seen overdose deaths nearly double in the past decade.
In 2016, the last complete year for which data is available, 790 Arizonans died of an opioid overdose.
But the drugs’ spread has been several times more dramatic for a small and vulnerable population that has few options for treatment: pregnant mothers and newborns. However, there is a chance that new funding tied to the reforms might be directed to help them.
In Arizona, the number of infants born with opioid withdrawal symptoms has increased almost five-fold during roughly the same period, going from 15 cases per 10,000 births in 2008, to 73 per 10,000 births in 2016.
For most people addicted to opioids, quitting cold-turkey results in relapse more frequently than seeking treatment in a supervised detox program.
Recent reserch shows better outcomes result from a treatment known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT), in which a patient uses a replacement drug, such as methadone or buprenorphine, to wean off the opioid under medical supervision. For pregnant women addicted to opioids, a relapse compounds risks for both the mother and the unborn child, and researchers have been sharing best practices for administering MAT to them, as well.
Only about two in five pregnant women addicted to opioids in Arizona receive MAT, according to the most recent tracking by the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Opioid addiction is more prevalent in some parts of the state. Data collected by the Department of Health Services for the second half of 2017 show the overdose rate is highest in Graham County, a rural area in eastern Arizona, and Yavapai County, another rural county northwest of the Phoenix metro area.
There are few options for addicts to receive treatment in many rural parts of the state. Many live hours away from addiction recovery services, like detox programs and therapy.
The scarcity of programs is compounded for pregnant women in rural Arizona seeking medication assisted treatment because many doctors have not yet been educated about administering MAT to pregnant women.
Tara Sundem, co-founder of Hushabye Nursery, a nonprofit that advocates for best practices for infants suffering from prenatal drug exposure, said because doctors, especially in rural areas, may not have regularly treated pregnant women in need of MAT, some women have been referred to specialized treatment clinics in the urban centers of Phoenix or Tucson.