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Conference to tackle opioid use among women of childbearing age

Nearly 400 participants will gather in Greensboro next month to tackle the increasing problem of opioid painkiller use and addiction among reproductive age women. The conference, “Pregnancy and Opioid Exposure: Improving Outcomes for Women, Infants, and Families” is expected to draw professionals from across the state, including from the medical, behavioral health, child welfare and justice fields.

The UNC School of Social Work, along with the North Carolina Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services; Vidant Health; and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are co-sponsoring the first-of-its-kind daylong event.

The March 4 conference—which will include more than a dozen breakout sessions addressing everything from addiction, recovery and treatment to advocacy for women who use drugs—will focus on how best to maximize physical and emotional health outcomes for women with opioid-exposed pregnancies, said Melissa Godwin, a clinical assistant professor at UNC’s School of Social Work and the Workfirst & CPS Substance Abuse Initiative coordinator for the School’s Behavioral Healthcare Resource Program.

“Currently, there is a lot of misinformation out there about opioid use among reproductive-age women and especially around medication-assisted treatment,” Godwin said. “So, a lot of this conference will be about ensuring that providers, such as child welfare professionals, physicians and nurses, or probation officers, have the most accurate information and that they leave better prepared to provide services to women of child-bearing age who may be addicted to opioids and that they are able to connect them to treatment because ultimately, that’s going to result in the best health outcomes for the mother and the baby and the family.”

Misuse and abuse of prescription opioids has emerged in recent years as a national epidemic. The most common painkillers, including hydrocodone, codeine and oxycodone, are generally prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, such as for a chronic aching back. However, abuse of these drugs can lead to addiction or worse. Since 1990, deaths from narcotic painkillers have more than tripled in the nation. Moreover, North Carolina ranks among the Top 5 states in the country in drug overdose fatalities.

Research has shown that easy access to prescription opioids has likely contributed to the misuse and abuse, including among women who are pregnant or who might become pregnant. According to a recent report from the Centers for Chronic Disease Control and Prevention, “more than a third of reproductive-aged women enrolled in Medicaid, and more than a quarter of those with private insurance filled a prescription for opioid pain medication each year during 2008-2012.”

In North Carolina, the Drug Enforcement Administration found that from 1997 to 2010, there was an 839 percent increase in prescriptions of oxycodone. Although it’s unclear how many of these were women who actually became pregnant, hospitals and health care providers across the state have seen an increase in recent years of infants born with withdrawal symptoms from opioid exposure, Godwin said.

“What we do know is that the withdrawal is predictable, and it is treatable and that no research has shown that there are long-term effects from withdrawal,” she said.

Nevertheless, those instances have helped drive discussion around the need for better information on opioid use and treatment, Godwin said. In addition to hosting the statewide event, conference partners also are developing an umbrella website under the North Carolina Pregnancy & Opioid Exposure Project that will serve as a one-stop shopping site for providers looking to support women and their families around the issue.

Long-term, statewide partners will also continue to consider ongoing training, including for hospitals to ensure that medical staff are delivering appropriate services to women struggling with opioid dependency, Godwin said.

“Ultimately, substance exposure—not just for opioids but in general—and pregnancy present as an opportunity for women to get into treatment,” she said. “We would hope that all professionals attending this conference leave with that message—that all women deserve help and understanding and connection to treatment and ultimately that’s the best outcome for the baby, too.”