The rate of American babies being born with symptoms of opiate withdrawal, typically caused by maternal drug abuse, tripled from 2000 to 2009, according to a study that underscores the growing problem posed by powerful prescription painkillers in the United States.
The study, published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also found that the number of new mothers who tested positive for opiates increased fivefold during the same period.
Opiates include pain medication and street drugs such as Oxycontin, Dilaudid, codeine, morphine, heroin, methadone and others.
The surge in the number of babies born to mothers using these drugs is causing not just health problems but an larger burden on the Medicaid federal-state health insurance program for the poor, the researchers found.
“This study is part of a bigger call to the fact that opiates are becoming a big problem in this country,” said Dr Stephen Patrick of the University of Michigan, who worked on the study.
The researchers found that a baby is born every hour in the United States with signs of opiate drug withdrawal.
The study was based on records from more than 4,000 hospitals across the United States. Those records showed that the rate of infants born with symptoms of opiate withdrawal rose from one in 1,000 in 2000 to more than three in 1,000 in 2009. That works out to about 13,500 US newborns in 2009, the study found.
Newborn babies who show signs of withdrawal are born earlier than average and have a higher risk of breathing problems and seizures, according to experts. They require careful monitoring and treatment to wean them off the drugs before they can go home, experts say.
Amid concern about escalating abuse of various prescription drugs, research has shown an increase in abuse of opiates and overdoses from those drugs in the United States.
Babies born in opiate withdrawal significantly drive up healthcare costs, especially in the Medicaid program. The study found that the average hospital stay for a newborn in opiate withdrawal topped $50,000 in 2009, with about 80% of that paid by Medicaid.
That’s in part because those babies were kept in the hospital for an average of 16 days after being born compared to just three days for other newborns, who cost an average of less than $10,000 to deliver, according to the study.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14,800 people died of a prescription opiate overdose in 2008, about triple the number from 20 years earlier.
It usually is not difficult to spot a baby who is in opiate withdrawal, Patrick said. Those infants “are far more inconsolable than other babies,” he said. “They appear uncomfortable, sometimes they breathe a little faster. ... They’re scratching their faces.”
It is unclear if there are long-term health impacts for kids who are born to opiate-addicted moms and get through their first weeks of life healthy. Some studies have found those children grow up with a higher risk of developmental problems, Patrick said.
Marie Hayes of the University of Maine, who wrote a commentary accompanying the study, said about 85% of the babies born with opiate withdrawal who she sees are a result of women who abuse prescription drugs.
She said a few have mothers who needed to be on strong painkillers due to injuries after a car accident, for example, and some have mothers addicted to heroin.