Health and Science

Every 45 minutes, a child is poisoned by opioids as epidemic grows

Lawrence K. Ho | Getty Images

The U.S. opioid epidemic is even poisoning young children.

A new study finds that poison control centers across the country field 32 calls a day from families with a child who has been exposed to opioids — that is about one call every 45 minutes.

The study was published online Monday by the journal Pediatrics and conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

The researchers found more than nearly 190,000 calls to U.S. Poison Control Centers for pediatric exposure to opioids from January 2000 through December 2015.

"It shows us the drug we know our grownups have been dealing with for awhile has trickled down to our children," said Dr. Marcel Casavant, one of the study's co-authors and chief of the toxicology department at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

The calls involved children all the way from the earliest years of life through the teenage years, and the causes for their exposure varied according to age. But the results can be fatal — 175 children died during the period from which the study drew its data.

"The reasons sort out very cleanly," said Casavant. "So if you were to give me me a child's age, I could probably guess why they were exposed to the pharmaceutical painkillers."

The youngest children — groups into the ages 0-5 years in the study — typically ingested the medicines accidentally, often because the medicines were left out on a counter, improperly stored or because the child began digging through a parent's purse or bag.

The middle group, comprised of children ages 6-12, usually ingested medicines prescribed for them in excessive doses, again by accident.

Teenagers, though, usually ingested the medicines intentionally. Attempted suicide was the most common motivation, followed by recreational use.

The suicide data was particularly concerning, Casavant said. The rate of suspected suicides involving prescription opioids increased by more than 50 percent throughout the course of the 16-year study.

For that reason, Casavant now tells patients to not only keep their medicines out of sight and out of reach, but contained in a locked cabinet.

In addition, the team calls for changes to packaging — such as selling pills in individual blister packs — that slow the child's access to the drug, giving parents time to intervene, for example.

Another data point that stands out is the alarming level of exposure to buprenorphine, a "partial-agonist" opioid used to wean addicts off opiates. Like methadone, buprenorphine mimics some, but not all, of an opiate drug's effects, which helps patients with withdrawal but does not produce the high of painkillers or street drugs.

Casavant is one of a relatively small number of doctors certified to prescribe the drug, which he said can be immensely helpful for an addict — or an infant born to a mother addicted to opiates — but the drug is extremely dangerous to someone who is not addicted to opiates.

Casavant told CNBC that he worries some doctors, in their efforts to stress the safety of the drug for recovering addicts, might be forgetting to warn them of how dangerous it can be to anyone else.

In 2016, the FDA approved a buprenorphine treatment that patients could implant under their skin, which meted out small doses of the drug over a period of several months. Such a product could solve the problem of storing pills away from children, but it may take time for it to catch on with doctors and patients. Its cost also may be higher for patients.

"It does look like injecting under the skin is going to be a good way to go," in the future, though, Casavant said.

He also said that anyone who suspects they or someone else have been exposed to opioids should call the national Poison Help hotline.