Since 2009, over 13 thousand babies were born with drug withdrawal symptoms and this number continues to grow each year, putting it at a rate of one baby per hour. "We were surprised by the magnitude of the increase," says researcher Stephen Patrick, MD, MPH, a Robert Wood Johnson clinical scholar at the University of Michigan.
So, what is drug dependence? And are babies growing more addicted to drugs? Drug dependence occurs when a person develops a physical dependence on a drug, disabling them from leading a normal and healthy lifestyle. This dependence leads to withdrawal symptoms if the drug is abruptly stopped. In the case of newborns, they too can be drug dependent, but do not have the harmful behavior typically seen with addiction.
According to the study, the overwhelming cause of such addiction can be traced to pregnant mothers taking opiate drugs, or narcotics, while pregnant. "These medications provide superior pain control for cancer and chronic pain, but have been overprescribed, diverted, and sold illegally, creating a new opiate addiction pathway and a public health burden for maternal and child health," Marie J. Hayes, PhD, a University of Maine psychologist, and Mark Brown, MD, a Bangor, Maine, pediatrician, write in an editorial accompanying Patrick's study.
Generally, babies born in withdrawal are treated with oral morphine or methadone, but surveys show that treatment varies around the country. They're also more likely to be born with low birth weight and feeding issues are common, says Patrick, a neonatologist.
On average, the cost of treating each of these babies was $53,400 in 2009, a 35% increase over 2000, although their length of stay in the hospital, 16 days, remained the same, the researchers found.
In addition, Florida lawmakers have paved the way in establishing a statewide task force on prescription drug abuse and newborns.
Patrick presented his research at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Boston, and the Journal of the American Medical Association posted it early online.