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Drug-Linked Infant Deaths Doubled in U.S. in 4 Years
  • Posted June 5, 2024

Drug-Linked Infant Deaths Doubled in U.S. in 4 Years

As an epidemic of drug abuse cuts it way through America, none are left unharmed, even the very young.

New data finds that the rate of infants dying from drug-related reasons more than doubled between 2018 and 2022.

In 2018, 10.8% of all deaths to babies under 1 year of age were linked to drugs. Four years later that had risen by 120%, to 24.4% of fatalities, according to researchers from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

The sharpest uptick occurred during the pandemic, suggesting that reduced access to services such as hospitals and prenatal care might have played a role.

“Drug-involved deaths in infants represent a potentially avoidable cause that should be considered in efforts to reduce infant mortality in the United States," said senior study author Dr. Maria Mejia, professor of population health and social medicine at the university.

The study authors defined a drug-related death in an infant as one "in which drugs are either the primary cause of death or a contributing factor."

These deaths might be linked to a mother's drug use, a baby's inadvertent or accidental intake of prescription meds, use of illicit drugs in the home, or other incidents where drugs were linked to death. 

The study, published recently in the Journal of Perinatal Medicine, was based on data on infant deaths collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meija's team focused on 2018 through 2022 because they sought to gauge the impact of the pandemic, and 2022 is the latest year for which good data is available.

Besides the sharp uptick in infant deaths reported, the statistics showed that during the postnatal period (ages 28 to 364 days), drug-related causes were by far the leading cause of death among infants.

In 35.6% of drug-related infant deaths, babies died from "assault [homicide] by drugs, medicaments and biological substances," the research showed.

Exposure to narcotics and hallucinogens triggered 15.6% of deaths, while accidental poisonings from sedatives, epilepsy drugs, Parkinson's meds and psychotropic drugs were implicated in just under 11% of cases.

"The most common multiple causes of drug-involved infant deaths were psychostimulants with abuse potential of synthetic narcotics," the researchers said in the news release. Psychostimulants include drugs such as methamphetamine, and synthetic narcotics include drugs such as fentanyl.

Black infants made up 28.5% of deaths, while white babies were involved in about 60% of these deaths, the study found.

What can be done to prevent these senseless tragedies?

According to Meija, "effective strategies will require collaborative efforts among health providers, public health agencies and community partners, and should focus on preventing and treating maternal substance use disorders, enhancing prenatal care access and addressing broader social and behavioral risk factors.” 

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has tips on keeping babies and children safe from medications in the home.

SOURCE: Florida Atlantic University, news release, June 4, 2024

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