Abuse of prescriptions drugs is on the rise, and a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association is the first to shed light on the effects of this trend on newborns.
Researchers found that opiate use among pregnant women increased five-fold between 2000 and 2009; newborns diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) increased three-fold in the same time period. NAS can occur in infants exposed to opiates in utero, and is characterized by seizures, breathing difficulties, dehydration, irritability, tremors and feeding intolerance. Essentially, these newborns become dependent to the opiates they get from their mothers in the womb, and experience withdrawal symptoms after they are born. The most effectual treatment is to administer opiates similar to the ones used by the mother, and gradually wean the infant from their dependence over several days. Though effective, it is also very dangerous as the risk of overdose is very high in infants.
This means that each year almost 13,500 babies are born with NAS – that’s one baby every hour. The healthcare costs are also cause for concern. Treatment for NAS requires that babies spend more than two weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, where they require a tremendous amount of care. According to the study, because these babies are often born to low-income mothers, the government frequently foots the $50,000+ per infant hospital bill. The long-term effects of in utero opiate exposure are not clear at this time.
Lead author Dr. Stephen W. Patrick, of the University of Michigan, and colleagues agreed that the best course of action is to reach out young women who are using or abusing drugs before they become pregnant.