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US Doctors See Surge In Newborns Addicted To Mothers' Pain Pills

Doctors across the United States are delivering babies who are having withdrawal symptoms because their mothers are addicted to prescription painkillers. The federal government acknowledges a problem with prescription drug abuse across all age groups, and even in maternity wards.  A new study examines just how many pregnant women are using these drugs and how many babies are born suffering from withdrawal.

In delivery rooms across the United States, doctors are seeing more and more mothers addicted to prescription pain killers.

The increase is so great that Dr. Stephen Patrick at the University of Michigan decided to review hospital records to find out just how serious the problem is. His own experience provided the motivation.

“What we found was that, from 2000 to 2009, the number of babies having drug withdrawal increased by three times," said Dr. Patrick. "In addition, we found that the number of mothers using opiates at the time of delivery went up by fivefold.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call prescription drug abuse the fastest growing drug problem in the United States. Opiates commonly abused are prescription pain killers such as oxycodone as well as illegal drugs like heroin.

Dr. Patrick says babies born with these drugs in their systems have more costly and complex hospital stays as they go through drug withdrawal known as neonatal abstinence syndrome.

“Common symptoms that babies exhibit after they’re born are irritability, difficulty feeding, difficulty breathing, we also know that babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome are more likely to be born with low birth weight,” he said.

What's not known is whether these babies will suffer long-term health consequences.  Another problem is that these babies can need the same drugs addicts receive - like methadone - until the baby can be weaned off the opiates.  Because the babies are so small, death from overdosing is a real danger.  Plus, when pregnant women use opiates, they increase the chances of delivering a dead baby.

Dr. Patrick calls the situation a public health emergency that requires attention from all levels of government as well as from researchers. Experts say the best outcome would be to get mothers-to-be off opiates before they become pregnant.  

The report appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.


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