Lethal Opioid Overdose among American Children Reaches Crisis Proportions
3/12/2018 4:12:25 PM
Arthur J. Villasanta - Fourth Estate Contributor

Washington, DC, United States (4E) - The number of American children admitted to hospitals for opioid overdose has nearly doubled since 2004.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics found the number of children admitted to hospitals for opioid overdose jumped to 1,504 patients between 2012 and 2015 from 797 patients between 2004 and 2007. It noted that many of these children likely overdosed after stumbling upon their parents' prescription medications.

The study looked at children between ages 1 and 17 admitted to hospitals and pediatric intensive care units with opioid-related diagnoses from 2004 to 2015. It comes at a time when opioid use among adults in the U.S. has reached epidemic proportions. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 42,000 people died in the U.S. from opioid overdose in 2016, more than any year on record.

Children between the ages of 1 and 5 years were the second most-likely to be admitted for opioid overdose, accounting for over one-third of cases. The vast majority were likely the result of accidental consumption of medications such as methadone and oxycodone prescribed to the children's parents. In severe cases, opioid overdose can lead to reduced and inadequate breathing, or death.

"When they come in, they're going to fall into one of two categories: either they're teenagers with intentional or drug-seeking behavior because of recreational or self-injurious behavior, or they're kids who got into their parents' medication," said Dr. Jason Kane, a lead author on the study and an associate professor of pediatrics and critical care at Comer Children's Hospital in Chicago.

"The thing that was a bit striking is that in the youngest children, those under six years of age, 20% of the ingestions were of methadone. So you sort of have to ask yourself: where are they getting all this methadone from?" Methadone is prescribed for the treatment of opioid withdrawal symptoms and also as a pain killer.

Researchers identified 3,647 patients in 31 children's hospitals across the country admitted with opioid-related diagnoses. Of these, 43% wound-up in the pediatric intensive care unit, which is generally reserved for the most severe, and life-threatening, cases.

"What was really striking to me is just how sick these kids are and that almost half of them end up in the ICU," said Dr. Kane. "The reason why that's important to recognize is that nationwide there's only about 4,100 pediatric ICU beds, which is in contrast to the number of adult ICU beds, which is closer to 78,000.

"So every time you put a child in a pediatric ICU bed, you're using a very limited resource," he added. "And if we fill our pediatric ICU beds with patients who have entirely preventable conditions, we will not be able to give those beds to patients who truly need them for unpreventable medical conditions."

But as treatment for opioid addiction increases across the country, more and more children are likely becoming "secondary victims" of the epidemic, according to Dr. Kane.

"I think this confirms what we have suspected and what we've been seeing in our emergency departments," said Dr. Rajesh Daftary, medical director of the pediatric emergency department at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, who was not involved in the study.

"Overall, we're seeing increased exposure to opioids by children," he added.

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