A study published this week in JAMA Pediatrics finds a significant increase in the number of hospitalizations of kids due to opioid poisoning.
Dr. Julie Gaither is an epidemiologist and post-doctoral fellow with the Yale School of Medicine, and lead author of the study.
She told WNPR that researchers looked at a national sample of pediatric hospital discharge records of children and adolescents, one to 19 years old, to figure out how many had been hospitalized in recent years for prescription opioid poisonings.
Dr. Julie Gaither: We found over the span of 16 years, from 1997 to 2012, that poisonings in this age group had increased by 165 percent. But we were surprised to find that the greatest increase over time was actually among the youngest children, so those one to four years of age, where rates more than doubled.
WNPR's Diane Orson: Whoa. To what do you attribute this?
I think it’s a direct reflection of trends in opioid prescribing that have happened in the United States in the past couple of decades. Sales of opioid analgesics have really risen dramatically. They’ve quadrupled in recent years and so we now have these medications prescribed to millions of adults and therefore, they’re in millions of homes. And children are increasingly exposed to them.
What are the health risks to children when they are poisoned by opioids?
Well, these are medications prescribed for an adult and they have sedative properties. They can affect the respiratory system and its just very dangerous for a child to be exposed to say a medication that was prescribed for a person who weighs say, 150 pounds, and you’ve got a four-year-old child ingesting this medication. So they can be very sedative and the child can become unresponsive.
One thing I noted in your study is that in the age group between about five and nine you saw a pretty sharp drop.
We did. That was the age group where we saw the lowest number of poisonings and I think that speaks to the fact that at about five or so, children are more aware. They don’t think that what they have found on a countertop or on the floor is candy. And so I think that is what’s happening there.
And with the children, when you start to get to 10 and prepubescent age range and up into the teens, then you have behaviors that mimic what’s happening with adults, and opioids being misused and abused.
We did find from 2009 to 2012 that hospitalization rates among the oldest teens, so those 15-19 years of age, actually decreased slightly. It was about a seven percent decrease. But during the same period we saw that rates for illicit opioid use, heroin use, continued to increase.
So what’s next? What needs to happen to address this?
Well, one, I think some of the measures are simple. We need to just keep opioids out of the hands of little kids.
And that can be done by making sure that they are stored somewhere where a child can not get into them; that when the time comes that the adult is no longer taking the medication to dispose of them properly; and I think physicians can help by, when they prescribe a medication to an adult, assess whether there is a child in the home and then explain to them that these are medications that your child does not need to get into.
I think the most important thing that this study shows is that we need to spend more time thinking about how the opioid crisis has affected the pediatric population. Because this really is something that has affected us all. Its affects from newborn babies, infants who are born addicted to narcotics because their mother took them; or all the way through the elderly who take opioids and then experience falls.
So, most of the national conversation to date has focused on adults and the physicians who prescribe to them, and I would like to us focus more on children because they too have suffered and are impacted.
WNPR’s Opioid Crisis Reporting Initative is supported by Hartford Healthcare Behavioral Health Network’s MATCH Program.