By EJ Mundell
THURSDAY, Aug. 11, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Triggered by a national epidemic of opioid painkiller abuse, the number of babies born with opioid withdrawal symptoms quadrupled in the United States between 1999 and 2013.
That's the finding from a study of nearly 30 million births across 28 states, tracked by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC team said better addiction-prevention efforts "are needed to reduce inappropriate prescribing and dispensing of opioids" to curb this increase in what's medically known as "neonatal abstinence syndrome."
Neonatal abstinence syndrome is an increasingly familiar sight in hospitals caring for newborns across the United States, the CDC researchers said.
Newborns with the condition experience opioid withdrawal symptoms such as "tremors, increased muscle tone [rigidity], high-pitched crying and seizures," the researchers said. Affected babies can also have trouble with feeding and experience fluctuations in body temperature.
While other forms of maternal drug addiction can cause the syndrome, it is "most often attributed to in utero opioid exposure," said the team led by Jean Ko, of the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
For the study, Ko's group used data from 28 states collected under the supervision of the CDC. The study found that between 1999 and 2013, cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome soared fourfold overall -- from 1.5 cases per every 1,000 births in 1999 to 6 cases per 1,000 by 2013.
Certain states were especially hard-hit by the crisis. For example, while Hawaii had the lowest rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome (0.05 cases per 1,000), three states -- Maine, Vermont and West Virginia -- recorded more than 30 such cases per every 1,000 births by 2013.
West Virginia was the worst off: By 2013, that state's hospitals diagnosed the syndrome in more than 33 babies for every 1,000 delivered, the CDC report found.
Caring for these newborns takes a financial toll on taxpayers, too. According to the study authors, in 2012 alone, "Medicaid programs were financially responsible for approximately 80 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion in [abstinence syndrome-] related annual hospital charges" nationwide.
What to do?
According to Ko's team, preventing women of childbearing age from getting addicted to opioids in the first place is key.
Since many addicts get hooked on the drugs after seeking legitimate relief from chronic pain, doctors should "consider nonopioid [drug] therapy" first, the researchers said.
The potential effects of opioids on pregnancy should also be discussed with women considering these medications, the authors added.
And if an opioid prescription is given, women should receive only the "lowest effective dose," to curb the chances they'll become addicted, the CDC researchers said.
The new study was published Aug. 11 in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The CDC has called prescription opioid misuse and addiction a full-blown "epidemic." According to the agency, about 2 million Americans are now in the throes of prescription opioid abuse or dependence, and more than 165,000 men and women died from a prescription opioid overdose between 1999 and 2014.
Federal officials have recently tried to act to clamp down on the problem. In July, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill that would bolster efforts at addiction prevention, treatment and recovery -- giving health professionals and police more resources to fight the scourge.
Funding the bill remains an issue, however. Democrats advocated for immediate funding, but Senate Republicans said that funding would be addressed later this year in the appropriations process. Congress has only a short window this fall to send a spending bill to President Barack Obama for signature, according to The New York Times.