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US sees sharp rise in opiate babies

1st May 2012

There has been a sharp increase in the number of babies born in the United States with an addiction to powerful painkillers, or opiates, a recent study has shown.


The babies are born addicted to opiates but in withdrawal following their birth, as they are no longer receiving the opiates through their mother's blood supply while in the womb.

There was a threefold increase in the number of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome from 2000-2009, with the figure rising to more than 13,000, denoting a rate of one baby per hour with the syndrome.

Researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association's online edition noted that there was a corresponding fivefold jump in the use of prescription painkillers like oxycodone (OxyContin) among pregnant women during the period.

Study author Stephen W. Patrick said opiate withdrawal among newborns was affecting babies at a rate that was "alarmingly high" and still on the rise.

Patrick, a fellow in the University of Michigan's neonatal-perinatal medicine division in Ann Arbor, said opiate withdrawal was becoming "a big problem".

The syndrome, which is associated with greater irritability, heightened muscle tone (hypertonia), tremors and feeding intolerance, is most common among babies in the poorest areas of the country and in families covered by the government's Medicaid programme covering low-income families.

Babies born with the syndrome are also more likely to have difficulty breathing and to experience seizures, as well as having a higher risk of a low birth weight.

The study, which looked at hospital discharge reports across the US in 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009, said that prescription painkillers given to pregnant mothers were the usual cause of the problem.

By 2009, a total of 13,539 newborns were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a rise of 300%. The rate stood at 3.39 per 1,000 hospital births, compared with just 1.20 per 1,000 hospital births in 2000.

The report cited statistics that showed that around 7% of women aged 18-25 use illicit drugs during pregnancy, with the prevalence rising to 16% among teenage mothers-to-be.

Opiate withdrawal in newborns also leads to longer stays in hospital, averaging 16 days and representing a cost increase of 35% from 2000 to 2009, it said.

Patrick said the study provided data on the increased care costs associated with opiate withdrawal as an additional incentive for government to fund prevention programmes at a national level.

He said further research was needed to find way to care for babies going through withdrawal, minimise their symptoms and shorten their hospital stays.

In an accompanying editorial, University of Maine professor Marie Hayes said opiate withdrawal was an epidemic that continued to grow, and that treatment programmes had not yet evolved to meet the challenge it presented.

She said the babies concerned suffered greatly, and might suffer long-term developmental problems as a result.

Once dependent on opioids, people remain addicted for a long term, so any intervention would need to target mothers, or potential mothers, Hayes added.

Christopher Sturiano, an assistant professor of public health at Weill Cornell Medical College and administrative director of Midtown Center for Treatment and Research in New York City, said it was crucial to identify young women at risk before or during pregnancy, possibly offering opiate replacement therapies to pregnant women to protect their unborn babies.

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