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by Karen Pershing, Executive Director, Metropolitan Drug Commission

A New Year is a time for hope and renewal and seeing new possibilities.  As we continue to make strides to reduce the impact of substance use and abuse in our community, we must not forget that one of our greatest opportunities is protecting our next generation from being exposed to harmful substances.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, in 2013 there were 921 babies diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a painful condition in a newborn that is in withdrawal as a result of their Mother’s substance use (primarily caused by prescription opiates).  At the end of week 50 of 2014, there were 909 cases reported, with 10 percent of those being from Knox County and another 27.4 percent from East Tennessee.  Although we are starting to see some positive declining trends in the prescribing of narcotics in our area, the consequence indicators, such as NAS and overdose deaths remain high.

In an effort to create awareness and educate both women of childbearing age and the general public, we are launching a new campaign, “Born Drug Free Tennessee.”  This campaign will send a very clear message about the dangers of using substances while pregnant, including alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs (cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine) and prescription narcotics.  We have had a focus on NAS for several years, but we cannot forget that almost 18 percent of pregnant women smoke cigarettes (leading cause of premature birth) and 1 in 100 babies are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder due to the mother’s alcohol use.  Although there are many conditions and genetic abnormalities that cannot either be predicted or prevented, substance use of any kind is 100 percent preventable.

Prevention isn’t possible without first creating awareness of the problem and educating individuals on ways they can live healthy lives, free from the harmful effects of substance use/misuse.  Born Drug Free Tennessee is a way to send a strong message and provide education.  Through dissemination of printed materials in the forms of patient education brochures, medical provider education publications, postcards, posters and billboards, we will send a clear and consistent message about the dangers of substance use during pregnancy.  This program will also include, radio and television public services announcements, website, social media sites and the promotion of access to the State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services’ 24 hour 7 day a week treatment helpline.

Careful planning and countless hours have been put into the development of the campaign.  There have been many individuals and organizations at the table to work on various pieces of this comprehensive campaign.  What began as an effort with the Metropolitan Drug Commission (MDC), the Knox County Health Department and a duo of South College Physician Assistants’ degree-seeking capstone students developing patient and provider education materials, has since become a way to merge many other NAS prevention efforts under the same branded initiative, Born Drug Free Tennessee.  A regional NAS task force who was focused on creating public service announcements joined in creating the website, radio and television spots and social media pages.  Organizations represented are:  Allies for Substance Abuse Prevention (Anderson Co.), Rescue 180 (Jefferson County), Ridgeview Behavioral Health Services, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, HEAL of Sevier County, Mary Beth West Communications and the MDC.

After spending over a year and a half of working, meeting and developing the campaign, there still remained an issue of resources to both print and produce the materials.  After applying for multiple grants, the MDC was given the opportunity to partner with the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (AHIDTA) to provide funding for the initial launch of the campaign.  We are extremely grateful for this grant and opportunity it is providing to address a very important public health issue.  A special thanks to our local media talent for their willingness to give of their time and talent to produce our television and radio spots, Robin Wilhoit with WBIR and Kim Hansard with Star 102.1.  These two well-known and admired media professionals have passionately stepped in to reach mothers struggling with the disease of addiction with a message of hope and healing.  By helping mothers, we are helping babies.

The campaign is scheduled to launch in February with a press conference declaring that we will do everything possible in East Tennessee to lower the number of babies born physically dependent on drugs. After all, a baby’s life shouldn’t begin with detox.

If you are interested in helping with the campaign through the distribution of materials, financial support or advocacy, please contact me at 865-588-0963.

Special thanks to the Florida Department of Children and Families, with the Attorney General’s Office and the Florida Department of Health for allowing Tennessee to use the campaign slogan and designs for the Tennessee campaign.