Morphine Spoons and Baby Face Masks: Fighting Opioids With Fake Creations

A MORPHINE-RELEASING baby spoon. A rattle with a heart monitor attached. A bottle with a connected face mask to help a newborn breathe while drinking milk.

These products from a brand dubbed Opi's aim to help infants suffering from opioid withdrawal, but they don't exist on the market. And the people behind them hope they never have to.

Each prototype represents a response to a baby undergoing opioid withdrawal. Together, they're part of a campaign to raise support for mothers struggling with opioid addiction, and for babies who inherit that struggle simply by being born.

"It's intended to bring awareness (and) education around newborns withdrawing from heroin and opioids, and the education and awareness around how do we support moms and really put the supports in place to have them start to get treatment when they think they may be pregnant and not be ashamed to come and ask for help," says Nancy Hans, executive director of the Virginia-based Prevention Council of Roanoke and co-founder of the Urgent Love Initiative.

The Urgent Love Initiative – a pilot project focused on fighting addiction, initially within 26 counties and 12 cities in southwestern Virginia – teamed up with ad agency Grey New York to launch the nationwide campaign, which features ads on Facebook and Instagram. Users can go to the Opi's Baby website and purchase each of the baby-geared products, though they won't actually receive one: Funds will go to the Urgent Love Initiative for treatment and social support for moms and babies in the Virginia region it serves.

The Opi's campaign features prototype products like a morphine-releasing baby spoon.(TOOL NA/GREY NEW YORK)

The campaign hopes to spread its message with the help of influencers like former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, actor Rob Lowe and Nina Westbrook, the wife of NBA star Russell Westbrook.

"If you're a parent and you're not affected by the opioid epidemic, and you see a baby product pop up in your Instagram feed, you might think, 'Oh, this is cute.' You look a little closer, and then you realize that there's something really off about it," says Brett Simone, associate creative director for Grey New York, which worked on the project pro bono. "Maybe it lowers that barrier a little bit, maybe it opens your eyes a little bit more to, 'Maybe I should care about these moms; maybe I should care about these kids.'"

Amid an opioid crisis that's ravaged America, the rate of babies born with the drug-withdrawal issue of neonatal abstinence syndrome soared by more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2014, from 1.5 per 1,000 hospital births to 8.0 per 1,000. Federal officials say a baby experiencing opioid withdrawal is born roughly every 15 minutes in the U.S.

The idea of the project came about more than a year ago, Hans says, when she collaborated with another area nonprofit focused on substance misuse – the Roanoke Valley Hope Initiative – on a separate effort to help moms access morphine to aid their babies through drug withdrawal. That work raised questions about what help existed for the moms throughout pregnancy and afterward.

"As a new mom, it's already one issue to be a new mom to a baby and then to be in the depths of addiction or have been using substances – where's that support for them? Because they are at such high risk for relapse if there aren't those supports in place," Hans says.

Christine Baldwin, administrator of the Hope Initiative – which Hans says stands to receive funding through the Opi's campaign and Urgent Love – knows this challenge all too well.

Baldwin tried her first cigarette when she was 12. Over the next 15 years, her substance use progressed from smoking marijuana and trying drugs like cocaine, meth, LSD and mushrooms in high school to an opioid addiction, which she says started after she received an oxycodone prescription for back pain following the birth of her first child.

"I started doctor-shopping and med-seeking, asking for early refills, going to different doctors, and that quickly got me cut off of my supply from my doctor," Baldwin says. "So then I was fully buying them on the streets."

One day, Baldwin's dealer introduced her to heroin, and it quickly became ingrained into her lifestyle: "I was doing any and everything to get the money to support my habit. It wasn't even about getting high anymore; it was just about staying well."

Around the same time, Baldwin found out she was pregnant with her second child. She sought treatment, but says she was turned away after being told she was too far along and the withdrawal could kill her son. After giving birth in February 2015, she tapered her son off opioids, but he still experienced withdrawal symptoms like slight tremors and high-pitched crying.

"As a mom, it just shattered my soul to know that, you know, when he was crying like that, it was because of me, and because he was withdrawing," Baldwin says. "I was really, really devastated at this point. And I didn't even care about getting treatment anymore. … I started to feel as though my kids were better off without me, and I just continued down the really dark road."

A prototype combining a baby bottle and face mask that's part of the Opi's campaign.(TOOL NA/GREY NEW YORK)

Baldwin's addictions eventually led to her being arrested while pregnant with her third child, and she was sentenced to participate in Western Virginia Regional Jail's Alpha treatment program.

"It's like boot camp meets jail meets rehab meets college – it's like all of the most intense situations that you can think cramped into one," she says.

Baldwin's daughter was born in July 2016, and she returned to jail and graduated the Alpha program in October of that year. Now 30, she says May of this year will mark three years in recovery.

She is a certified peer-recovery specialist who lives in Roanoke County, Virginia, and is working on finding a new house and regaining full custody of her children.

"Now I get to put my kids to bed, fix them dinner and go to their school functions, play tooth fairy and Easter bunny – things I never did before," she says.

Baldwin says efforts like the Opi's campaign veer away from attaching stigma to a mom who is pregnant and going through addiction, trying to help instead of blaming and shaming.

In the past, "it was, 'Oh, these parents are terrible, we need to lock them up and take their children away.' But now that we're understanding that it's a disease, and that if we can get these moms treatment, then there's no need to take (their children) away – any child is going to be in a better place, if they're with their biological parents who are healthy," she says.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief medical and health officer for March of Dimes, the national nonprofit focused on better health for moms and babies, says similar educational crusades – like the Truth anti-smoking ad campaign – have boosted awareness among the general public that similar situations could happen to them.

"The more aspects that are out there to encourage people to have a conversation, the more we can empower the public to take action," Gupta says. "We've got to give people the tools in their hands so they can do something about it, rather than just talking about it. I think campaigns like this certainly help to reduce the stigma, and further empower individuals into taking actions."

Hans says she hopes the Opi's message translates into positive, long-term impacts.

"It really does make a difference when we can look at this not just (as) one generation, but maybe two or three generations, because it's impacting families beyond just the person that may have used," she says. "We've got to find ways to collaborate so that we can help families and save lives."

Joseph P. Williams contributed to this report.

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