More US Babies Born With Drug Withdrawal Symptoms, Study Says

Natalie McGill


Nations Health. 2015;45(5):e26 

The number of U.S. babies born with symptoms of drug withdrawal is on the rise, according to a recent study.

The incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome — when babies go through withdrawal from opioid drugs their mothers used during pregnancy — increased from 3.4 per 1,000 hospital births in 2009 to 5.8 per 1,000 births in 2012, according to research published online April 30 in the Journal of Perinatology.

The study found that on average, one infant was born with the syndrome every 25 minutes in the U.S., with more than 21,000 infants diagnosed, said lead study author Stephen Patrick, MD, MPH, MS, an assistant professor of pediatrics and health policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics. Signs a baby is born with neonatal abstinence syndrome include decreased sleep, difficulty feeding, irritability and tremors.

The increase in syndrome diagnoses comes as opioid prescriptions have increased, Patrick said.

"We've seen an increase pretty substantially over the last decade in opioid prescribing," Patrick told The Nation's Health. "What we know is by 2012, there were 259 million prescriptions written in the U.S. In that context, we wanted to see if any of the complications like drug withdrawal in the infants also increased."

Health care costs associated with neonatal abstinence syndrome are also climbing. Hospital costs linked to care for babies in withdrawal increased from $732 million in 2009 to $1.5 billion in 2012, the study said. The highest rates of the syndrome were found in states in New England, such as New Hampshire, and southern states, such as Tennessee. Those rates may be linked to the level of prescribing and opioid misuse in those states, the study said.

Patrick said he is encouraged by the fact that 49 states have prescription drug monitoring databases that can track high-risk prescribing behaviors and patient behaviors. If the public health community does not address the issue then there are other methods, such as criminal justice approaches, that may be less effective, Patrick said.

"We're seeing some state governments develop prescribing guidelines for clinicians and we're beginning to get some traction when thinking of primary prevention efforts," Patrick said.