Opiate Abuse Has Risen in Pregnant Women

opiateOver the past decade, the abuse of opiates in pregnant women has risen sharply, leaving more babies born to experience withdrawal symptoms.[1]

A 2012 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association has quantified the problem’s growth for the first time.1 It has estimated that every hour a baby is born in the United States with symptoms of opiate withdrawal, which estimates to be about 13,500 babies per year.1 Neonatal abstinence syndrome causes seizures, breathing problems, dehydration, difficulty feeding, tremors, and irritability.1 In fact, many are hospitalized for several weeks as doctors treat them with methadone or morphine, to gradually wean them off of their opiate dependence.1

Clinical Neuroscientist as the University of Main, Marie J. Hayes, said, “The incidence has gone crazy, and I think it has the potential to become a national or international issue. People who previously might not have used heroin are more likely to use prescription opiates.”1

Unfortunately, it is still unclear as to whether or not babies who are exposed to opiates in the womb will experience long-term consequences.1 Similarly, in the 1980s, there was medical alarm as to whether babies born to cocaine-addicted mothers would suffer developmental issues or other damaging effects; however, studies found that this was far from certain.1

The 2012 study showed that the number of pregnant women who used opiate drugs increased fivefold from 2000 to 2009, and the number of infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome tripled.1 The average cost of taking care of each infant rose to $53,400 from $39,400.1

Chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Florida, College of Medicine in Jacksonville, Dr. Mark Hudak, said, “These babies require a tremendous amount of nursing care.”1

Infants spend an average of 16 days in the hospital, often in neonatal intensive care units, which are extremely expensive due to the specialized nursing care.1 Since 2000, the amount of time an infant spends in the hospital has not decreased, suggesting that doctors are still of unsure of how to make the withdrawal treatment more efficient.1 It is still unknown if there are different medicines that can be used or different treatments that work better.1

At first, the infants are soothed and put in a darkened room.1 If unsuccessful, they are given methadone or morphine to help the withdrawal process go smoother.1 However, this process takes careful monitoring.1 According to Hudak, “These drugs are very easy to overdose babies with. There have been deaths. If the babies are weaned too soon, they can wind up getting re-hospitalized.”1

Despite the risks, it is more effective to give the babies a drug related to what their mothers were taking while pregnant, rather than just treating the symptoms of the withdrawal (seizures, breathing problems, etc.).1 However, the best approach is to have pregnant women receive help for their drug addictions before, or, if not possible, while they are pregnant.1

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