The media is buzzing about new research showing that the number of babies born to opiate-addicted mothers has tripled in the past decade. Researchers blame the rise on an increase in the use of both legal and illegal painkillers and heroin by expectant mothers. Some are calling it the 21st century equivalent of the “crack baby” epidemic. That epidemic, we should remember, was portrayed by the media as much more serious than it actually was.
The rise, while troubling, is small. The rate of opiate addicted babies has increased from one per thousand births to three per thousand births. Viewed in percentile terms, the increase is from 0.001 percent of babies born to 0.003 percent. That’s hardly an epidemic. But what accounts for this rise? Although I couldn’t find any studies tracking opiate use by women of childbearing age, I did find a study documenting prescription drug abuse among older adults from 2002-2007. The study showed that abuse of all prescription drugs (opiates, as well as benzodiazepines, etc.) had increased over those five years from 2.2 percent to 4 percent, effectively doubling. If young women mimic that trend, we can see why they are having more babies born addicted to opiates.
The article noted that infant drug withdrawal is “rampant” in Maine and West Virginia – two states that have been battered by Oxycontin addiction. I’m curious how much of this increase is attributable to Oxycontin specifically, as opposed to heroin. The government reports that heroin use has increased as purity has increased, as needle-shy people who would never have tried the drug before now snort it. However, heroin purity started to increase at least fifteen years ago, so the recent rise in newborn addiction can’t be directly attributable to this. Interestingly, anecdotal evidence from methadone maintenance patients and counselors suggests that more and more people are entering treatment addicted to prescription painkillers instead of heroin.
To the extent that this study gives a glimpse in to broader trends, it will be interesting to see whether illegal opiate use continues to rise in the next few years.