The number of babies born in the U.S. with opioid addiction, also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), has nearly doubled in a four-year period. By 2012, one infant was born every 25 minutes with the syndrome, according to a new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome is caused by both illicit opioid drug use, such as heroin, as well as the use of prescription opioids, such as hydrocodone, by pregnant women. Infants born with NAS suffer severe withdrawal symptoms and are more likely to have respiratory complications, feeding difficulty, seizures, and low birth-weight.
The study, published in the Journal of Perinatology, showed that from 2009-2012, the incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome rose in the United States from 3.4 births per 1,000 to 5.8 births per 1,000.
The east south central region — Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Alabama — had the highest rates of the syndrome, occurring in 16.2 hospital births per 1,000.
“The rise in neonatal abstinence syndrome mirrors the rise we have seen in opioid pain reliever use across the nation,” said study lead author Stephen Patrick, M.D., M.P.H.
“Our study finds that communities hardest hit by opioid use and their complications, like overdose death, have the highest rates of the NAS,”said Patrick, assistant professor of Pediatrics and Health Policy with the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
Earlier studies have shown opioid pain reliever use skyrocketing in the past decade. In 2012 alone, physicians in the United States doled out approximately 259 million opioid prescriptions, enough for every American adult to have one bottle, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One study by Patrick found that pregnant women are commonly being prescribed opioid pain relievers, increasing the likelihood their infants are born with NAS.
For the study, researchers evaluated four years of data, from 2009-2012, in two national databases, the Kids’ Inpatient Database and the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, to identify rates of the syndrome.
The findings revealed that NAS rates had doubled in the study period, with more than 80 percent of the infants enrolled in state Medicaid programs. Looking back even further, the results mean NAS has grown nearly fivefold since 2000.
“The findings of this study demonstrate that neonatal abstinence syndrome is a growing public health problem in the United States and places a tremendous burden on babies, their families, and the communities in which they live,” said William Cooper, M.D., M.P.H., senior author for the study.
Geographic variation was also analyzed for infants diagnosed with the syndrome. Beyond the east south central region, New England had the next highest rate of NAS at 13.7 births per 1,000. The region with the lowest national rate was the west south central division with 2.6 births per 1,000.
“Too often in our health system we react to problems instead of forging public health solutions. Imagine if we were able to use the dollars spent to treat NAS on improving public health systems aimed at preventing opioid misuse and improving access to drug treatment for mothers,” said Patrick.