Researchers have found that nearly 3% of pregnancies in the United States were exposed to addictive opioid drugs.
The finding stems from an analysis of data from 21,905 pregnant women in what's dubbed the ECHO program (Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes), a federally funded effort to investigate the effects of early life exposures on several key areas of child health.
The new study found opioid use in pregnancy was more prevalent in white individuals. It was also more common in women with a history of depression and multiple substance use.
Most of the prenatal opioid use was connected to a prescription drug.
"Previous studies have not adequately described people in the U.S. who use opioids during pregnancy, a fact that has limited the efficacy of past public health interventions," said study leader Ruby Nguyen, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
"As the first nationwide sample of pregnant people to describe their opioid use, the findings of this study can be useful in future efforts to reduce opioid use during pregnancy and limit the negative consequences of fetal exposure to opioids," she said in a university news release.
"This large number of pregnancies in the ECHO program allowed us to investigate opioid use, which is difficult to do in smaller studies because it is a fairly rare exposure in the general population -- rare, albeit potentially life-altering," said Nguyen, who is also an investigator in the ECHO program.
To identify those at risk for prenatal opioid exposure, she said it will be important to evaluate the potential benefits of screening for the depression and multiple substance use that may also occur in those with addictive behavior.
"While our data were limited on specific details of the type of opioids used, we provide evidence that much of the opioid use during pregnancy originated from prescriptions," Nguyen said. "Therefore, to address the potential risks with pregnancy, policies to reduce general opioid availability, as well as programs focused on addressing prescription use for the management of both pain and opioid use disorder, should be further explored to target appropriate opioid use."
The findings were published recently in the Journal of Women's Health.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on opioid use during pregnancy.
SOURCE: University of Minnesota School of Public Health, news release, Nov. 21, 2022