US sees spike in painkiller-addicted babies

UK rolls out world's first Meningitis B vaccination programme

Prescription painkiller abuse among mothers-to-be has driven up the rate of babies born in the United States with opiate addiction almost threefold in a decade, said a US study on Monday.

The study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed a five-fold increase in maternal use of painkillers from 2000 to 2009, rising from 1.19 cases per 1,000 births to 5.63 per 1,000 annually.

Not all babies -- between 60-80 percent -- born to drug-using mothers develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which can include breathing problems, tremors and seizures, feeding difficulties, low birthweight and irritability.

The rate of infants born with withdrawal syndrome rose from 1.2 cases per 1,000 births in the year 2000 to 3.39 per 1,000 in 2009. Such babies typically required 16 days hospitalization after birth.

Painkiller use by pregnant mothers not only causes health and developmental problems in babies, but also raises costs in an already beleaguered health care system, said the findings which were based on US public hospital records.

The medical costs rose exponentially, with average hospital charges spiking from $39,400 in 2000 to $53,400 in 2009, a 35 percent increase after adjusting for inflation.

Babies with NAS were much more likely to be born to mothers covered by Medicaid (78 percent), the government-funded insurance program for the poor, and to live in zip codes with the lowest incomes (36 percent).

The increases, noted as part of the first nationally representative study on babies born with addiction syndrome across the United States, were generally in line with separate studies on painkiller use in the general population.

Sales and deaths related to opiate pain relievers in the United States quadrupled from 1999 to 2008, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"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," said an accompanying editorial by Marie Hayes and Mark Brown, both doctors at the University of Maine.