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Prescribed drugs do more harm
to babies than heroin

Sunday Telegraph,
September 21, 1997
by Victoria MacDonald,
Health Correspondent

"These babies have a scream different from a baby
that is hungry, dirty, or wants a cuddle"

BABIES born to mothers addicted to common tranquillisers are more likely to be admitted to intensive-care units than those born to heroin or methadone addicts, a study will reveal.

The research also shows that the babies suffer appalling "cold turkey" or withdrawal symptoms, lasting up to three months. One doctor, involved in the study, described the babies as "screaming unlike any scream you have heard".

The study, presented at a Paediatric Research Society meeting, will lead to calls for tighter control over the prescribing of benzodiazepines, a group of tranquillisers.

The Sunday Telegraph has already highlighted concerns that a generation of children is suffering physical, mental and psychological problems after being born to women prescribed the drugs while they were pregnant.

Earlier this year, we also revealed the case of eight-year-old Georgina Thrower, who is preparing to sue for damages allegedly caused in the womb, after her mother, Claire, was prescribed tranquillisers while pregnant.

Georgina has never walked unaided or talked. She has a curved spine and a condition which stops her muscles stiffening. She has also been diagnosed as having epilepsy.

Mrs Thrower, of Burwell, Cambs. was given a benzodiazepine to take three times a day for the final six weeks of her pregnancy - despite warnings that the drugs should not be given in the first and last trimesters.

The latest study is the first clinical trial in Britain on the effects on babies born to mothers who have been on benzodiazepines for more than six months.

Doctors at Arrowe Park Hospital in the Wirral found that, between 1994 and 1995, 70 mothers addicted to benzodiazepines were admitted to give birth. Fifty per cent of their babies had to be admitted to intensive care.

Dr James Robertson, a paediatrician, said: "Contrary to accepted opinion, the drugs were more damaging than heroin or methadone, with more of these babies going to intensive care." In a First Edition documentary for Carlton Television, he said the hospital's initial idea had been to find a way to help the babies come through the withdrawal with as little pain as possible.

"If you ask any adult what it is like to withdraw from drugs, the expression 'cold turkey' comes to mind. It is difficult and very distressing."

"Babies cannot tell us it is distressing except by screaming. These babies have a scream that is very different from a baby that is hungry, dirty or wants a cuddle. It is a baby that is in distress," he said.

Dr Robertson said that it had been found that the best form of treatment was to withdraw benzodiazepines from mothers during their pregnancy.

The focus of the research was immediately switched and the following year two-thirds of expectant mothers were taken off the drugs. In 1995-96, admissions of "benzo babies" to intensive care had fallen 30 per cent.

The Committee on Safety of Medicines and the Medicines Control Agency has issued a bulletin to doctors reminding them that benzodiazepines should be avoided during pregnancy or while breast-feeding. There are also calls for the drug to be put on a controlled prescriptions list, similar to that used by doctors prescribing heroin or methadone.

Concerns remain about long-lasting effects on children born to mothers taking benzodiazepines. Professor Carol Kellog, a clinical psychologist in New York, told First Edition that the drugs appeared to affect the brain's neurotransmitters, including the control of inhibitory behaviour. Symptoms only appeared in adolescents: "Until then they were developing normally; then they slowed down."

There were 30 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines last year, but there is also a large black-market.

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