In the United States, the twenty-first century has seen an alarming rise in infants born with a physical dependency to painkillers, based on their mother’s habits while they were in the womb. According to new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of cases of prenatal neonatal abstinence syndrome (the withdrawal syndrome that afflicts these infants) specifically as a result of the use of prescription painkillers, like Oxycontin, has tripled within the last decade alone. To illustrate this fact, consider that in 2009, there were more than 13,000 cases annually, roughly equating to about one baby an hour being born in the United States with an addiction to opiates of some sort.

Researchers also noted a fivefold increase in the use of prescription painkillers by mothers-to-be; illicit drug use was cited in about 16 percent of pregnant teens and seven percent of pregnant women ranging from ages 18 to 25. The infants born with opiate dependencies were, in 78 percent of cases, born to women receiving Medicaid, a government-funded insurance program for low-income individuals. And 36 percent of these cases lived in zip codes with the lowest incomes.


Addicted at Birth

Babies born with prenatal neonatal abstinence syndrome often have a low birth weight, which is damaging from the start. They also commonly suffer from breathing problems, seizures, irritability and a myriad of feeding problems. Opiates can be difficult to treat because of their highly addictive quality. A person’s dependency on these drugs can last a long time; typically, these children spend an average of 16 days in the hospital. A professor at the University of Maine in Orono, Dr. Marie J. Hayes, has said that the epidemic is a call to shorten this length of time and to find better ways to treat these infants. But, the truth is that a limited amount of information is known about treating these babies; more research in the field is critical.

“The treatment is not well-developed and the babies are suffering a lot,” she said. “There may also be long-term consequences to brain development.”

These cases are not only unfortunate, but also becoming exponentially expensive. Findings based on US hospital records have shown that, after adjusting for inflation, the average medical cost for these cases have risen 35 percent in the last decade—from an average of $39,400 in 2000 to $53,400 in 2009. These numbers place considerable strain on government-funded programs like Medicaid (relied on by over three quarters of mothers in these cases) and raise a red flag for the American healthcare system which, arguably, already suffers from a host of other complexities. These cases warrant for additional research, not only in the realm of treatment, but, more importantly, in the realm of prevention.

This startling trend is indicative of a serious, overarching problem: the overprescription of painkillers. This advancement in drug science has provided relief for chronic pain sufferers and cancer patients, however, the overprescription, re-distribution and selling of drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin now pose serious threats to maternal and child health. The findings of this study support those of separate drug-related studies, including one recently conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that sales and deaths related to opiate painkillers between 1999 and 2008 have quadrupled overall.

This widespread abuse of this drug suggests that there is a critical need for prevention. Given cost of the medical treatment required for infants suffering from prenatal neonatal abstinence syndrome, the funding needed to implement additional state-level treatment centers and prevention programs seems like a small investment by comparison.

“We need to identify and try to prevent this before or during pregnancy as opposed to after the fact,” Christopher Sturiano, administrative director of Midtown Center for Treatment and Research in New York City and an assistant professor of public health at Weill Cornell Medical College stated.


This post was written and contributed by Francine Conte. Francine is a consultant at a dual diagnosis treatment center, and has over 5 years of experience helping those battling the demons of addiction and mental illness live a clean and healthy life.

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