The number of heroin- and opioid-addicted babies born has more than doubled in less than 10 years, a new study says.
When mothers are addicted to drugs during pregnancy, the babies have neonatal abstinence syndrome, which manifests as withdrawal symptoms after the infants are born.
People who become addicted to opioids, like heroin and prescription painkillers, have incredibly painful withdrawal symptoms that can last for days or weeks, depending on the severity of their physical dependency. Withdrawal is caused when the brain, which is accustomed to opioids flooding its receptors, is suddenly deprived of those chemicals -- and babies born to opioid-addicted mothers have the same withdrawal symptoms.
In the U.S., the incidence of opioid-caused neonatal abstinence syndrome increased from 2.8 cases for every 1,000 births in 2009 to 7.3 cases for every 1,000 births in 2013, according to researchers at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
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Dr. Joshua Brown, a pharmacy researcher at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and the study's lead author, pointed out that drug policies aimed at curbing the opioid epidemic have reduced supply by making it much more difficult for abusers to do things like forge prescriptions or go doctor-shopping. But lawmakers failed to predict the obvious -- that many addicts will opt for the next closest thing, heroin, instead of going for treatment.
“The drug policies of the early 2000s were effective in reducing supply -- we have seen a decrease in methamphetamine abuse and there have been reductions in some aspects of prescription drug abuse,” Brown told Reuters in an email interview. “However, the indirect results, mainly the increase in heroin abuse, were likely not anticipated and we are just starting to see these.”
Similar studies indicate the problem may be more pervasive. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that cases of newborns addicted to opioids have quadrupled over a longer time period. In 1999, the CDC report said, 1.5 babies per 1,000 were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, while 6 in 1,000 newborns were impacted in 2013.
There are also marked regional differences in the statistics, the CDC found. In Hawaii, for example, there were 0.7 babies born addicted to opioids per 1,000 births, while 33.4 babies per 1,000 were addicted at birth in West Virginia in 2013.
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Those variations are reflected in existing data about opioid abuse in certain states and regions.
“We know that certain states are harder hit by the opioid/heroin abuse epidemic, with about 10 states contributing half of all neonatal abstinence syndrome cases,” Brown told Reuters. “These states are often more rural and impoverished areas of the U.S. such as Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia.”
Babies born with addiction symptoms require intensive medical care to prevent the symptoms from becoming fatal, Reuters noted. They're usually kept in hospitals for several weeks and are tapered down with methadone, the same powerful opioid drug used to wean adult users off heroin and heavy-duty prescription pills.
Those babies may go on to have developmental problems later in life, in addition to short-term problems like seizures, unstable body temperatures, respiratory problems and gastrointestinal difficulties, the report said.
“While abuse of prescription opiates has declined, the use of illicit opiates has increased such that there may be a zero-sum game at best,” said Dr. William Carey, a pediatrics researcher at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center. “Since maternal use of either prescription opiates or illicit opiates is associated with withdrawal in newborns, it is reasonable to think that any increase in the overall use of opiates would be linked to an increase in the rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome.”