Washington, DC - Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged all State Health Officers to use the resources and opportunities provided through their Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) agencies in their substance misuse prevention efforts. Vilsack made this announcement at a town hall in Missouri to discuss the opioid epidemic, which accounted for more than 28,000 deaths nationwide in 2014.

From 1993 to the 2013, opioid use has increased by 400 percent, exceeding 250 million prescriptions per year. Substance misuse may particularly impact the WIC population because the use of opioids can result in Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a withdrawal disorder some babies experience after exposure to drugs while in utero. There was been a five-fold increase in NAS from 2000 to 2012. Research has shown that newborns with NAS are more likely to have low birthweight and respiratory problems. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a baby is born suffering from opioid withdrawal every 25 minutes, leading to an average hospital stay of 16.9 days versus 2.1 days for a non-NAS child and to $1.5 billion in additional hospital costs.

"Because of the devastating toll that opioid misuse has taken on our communities, and particularly rural areas, I have tasked USDA with creatively using all of the resources at our disposal to stem the tide of this epidemic," said Secretary Vilsack. "For many women, WIC is their first point of entry into the health care system, and we have an opportunity to intercept and potentially prevent dangerous health outcomes for both the mother and the child. But just using our existing resources won't be enough to help the women and families who are already struggling. Congress recently missed an opportunity to pass new funding for addiction treatment and I am urging legislators to return to Washington to pass the President's budget request of $1.1 billion to help those who are struggling."

WIC plays an important role in providing mothers and young children with access to nutritious food, while also serving as a useful conduit to other health resources. As an adjunct to healthcare, the WIC Program is uniquely positioned to help pregnant women and mothers who may be struggling with addiction to access the help they need.

To assist WIC agencies in their substance misuse prevention and referral efforts, USDA released guidance in 2014 designed to help WIC agency staff integrate information on alcohol, drug and other harmful substance use and referrals to other treatment resources into their clinic activities. The recent guides, Substance Use Prevention: Screening, Education, and Referral Resource Guide for Local WIC Agencies and Give Your Baby a Healthy Start, the Dangers of Smoking, Drinking and Taking Drugs include a variety of educational materials and resources for WIC participants as well as training materials for WIC staff.

The approximately 1,900 local WIC agencies and 10,000 WIC clinic sites nationwide can play a major role in increasing participants' awareness of the dangers of substance misuse during pregnancy and while breastfeeding since they are required to provide participating women with this information. About 85 percent of income-eligible infants participate in WIC in their first year of life, totaling approximately half of all infants born in the U.S. WIC local agencies are also required to coordinate with local alcohol and treatment services to maintain and make available a list of local resources for addiction counseling and treatment.

WIC is one of FNS' 15 nutrition assistance programs, which also include the National School Lunch Program, Summer Food Service Program, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Together, these programs comprise America's nutrition safety net.