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The ‘lost generation.’ Doctors have growing concern opioids are impacting kids long-term

Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 5:54 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - “Now there is a silent factor to this that people don’t really talk about, and I’m afraid we’re going to lose a generation of children to it, not from a life standpoint, from an emotional standpoint,” says Dr. Jane Witman, a BayCare Clinic emergency medicine physician and toxicologist.

Doctors who’ve been on the frontlines for the last decade dealing with rising opioid addictions and drug overdoses are now starting to see the long-term effects it’s having on children.

And it’s happening as they see the opioid epidemic only get worse.

In October, Action 2 News talked with the Brown County Drug Task Force, which told us it’s now seeing fentanyl take the place of heroin in use and availability on the streets.

That’s raising a lot of new concerns, especially about children.

“You can’t expect somebody to grow up and excel if they’re not given a fair start,” says Dr. Witman.

Through her medical work, she sees the negative effects drugs have on families and children needing her care.

We’ve reported many times how, more and more often, babies and young kids are being exposed to drugs like fentanyl, heroin, meth and cocaine.

“Their skin is thin. It can get on their skin, it be absorbed much more than an adult would on their hands, and they’re touching and putting their fingers in their mouth all the time,” she explains.

As a toxicologist, Dr. Witman has a deeper understanding of the effects of drug use, physically and emotionally.

Nearly a decade ago, we first started talking with her as she became a leader in the public fight to educate others about addiction and worked to stop it.

A the time, there was really only research on short-term health effects on kids.

“We know what happens in babies that come out in-utero. They come out smaller. They have learning difficulties. They may have problems with attention,” she says.

Dr. Witman has also been monitoring any new research she can find about long-term effects on children exposed to heroin, fentanyl or cocaine -- all substances drug investigators say are on the rise in Northeast Wisconsin.

One of the biggest impacts she’s seeing is emotionally-based, when parents on sedating drugs have little interaction with their babies.

“It’s essentially a form of abuse or neglect because when babies are little. That interaction is what makes their brain grow, and if you don’t catch them in that window when they’re really small, the brain kind of... it’s called neuro pruning... it cuts back on those neurons, and they don’t have the ability to learn or develop their personality later,” she explains.

And that can’t be caught up, says Dr. Witman, posing concern about what she fears could be an emerging ‘lost generation.’

“The brain cuts back if you do not stimulate those tracks,” she says. “I think we have evidence that suggests that children who aren’t raised in a stable, attentive environment, from whatever reason, suffer.”

If a child is slightly older, the concern doesn’t wane.

“There is some early research that suggests that if a child is chronically exposed to any substance like cocaine or narcotics, there’s something called a rekindling effect that you will be more likely to become addicted if you are exposed later,” she says.

Dr. Witman is also closely watching new research on the impact of adults smoking cocaine around kids.

“(It) seems to be trend that some of the children labeled as SIDS are actually suffering from the effects of chronic crack cocaine smoke second-hand,” she says.

Regardless of the drug, Dr. Witman urges family or friends who see kids exposed to any kind of dangerous drug to intervene.

“It’s hard. It’s family, but that baby may not get a second chance,” she pleads.

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