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Rural U.S. hospitals see surge in opioid-dependent babies

Staff Writer |
Rural U.S. communities are seeing a surge in infants experiencing opioid withdrawal at birth because of widespread drug abuse by pregnant women, a new study finds.

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These tiny victims of the U.S. opioid epidemic are born addicted to heroin and powerful prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. And this public health crisis is hitting rural residents harder than their urban cousins, researchers say.

Investigators found that from 2004 to 2013, rural communities experienced a nearly 80 percent higher rise in infant opioid withdrawal rates, relative to cities.

"The magnitude of the difference between rural and urban areas was not expected," said study lead author Dr. Nicole Villapiano of the University of Michigan. She is with its Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

This class of drugs, which also includes morphine and fentanyl, is highly addictive. And addiction risk can extend to an unborn child if women take opioids while pregnant.

Infant opioid withdrawal - also called neonatal abstinence syndrome - can lead to low birth weight and a higher risk for seizures, alongside breathing, eating and sleeping problems the first few weeks of life.

Some studies suggest that affected children may develop attention-deficit problems down the road, although long-term risk remains unclear, Villapiano noted.

According to background notes with the study, the rate of maternal opioid use and infant withdrawal rose fivefold between 2000 and 2012.

To explore any geographic differences, the researchers analyzed hospital discharge data collected between 2004 and 2013 by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

During that time, diagnoses of neonatal abstinence syndrome jumped from a little over one per 1,000 births to almost eight per 1,000 births.

In urban areas, the rates more than doubled, but this was a smaller increase by comparison - from just under two per 1,000 urban deliveries to nearly five per 1,000 births.

The research team found that while rural infants accounted for just 13 percent of all neonatal opioid withdrawal cases in the country in 2003, that figure had risen to north of 21 percent a decade later.


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