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Nearly twice as many kids, some as young as 1, are being hospitalized due to opioids

  • The number of pediatric opioid hospitalizations requiring intensive care nearly doubled to 1,504 patients between 2012 and 2015, from 797 patients between 2004 and 2007.
  • One-third of the children that required intensive care due to opioid overdose were under the age of six, the study shows.
A mother holds her infant son Luke during a visit with him at Lily's Place, a treatment center for opioid-dependent newborns in Huntington, West Virginia, October 19, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
A mother holds her infant son Luke during a visit with him at Lily's Place, a treatment center for opioid-dependent newborns in Huntington, West Virginia, October 19, 2015.

Children as young as 1 year old are overdosing on opioid medication and being hospitalized at a rapid rate, a new study published Monday found.

The number of pediatric opioid hospitalizations requiring intensive care nearly doubled to 1,504 patients between 2012 and 2015, from 797 patients between 2004 and 2007, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Pediatrics.

"We do believe there's a direct relationship to the adult opioid crisis," Dr. Jason Kane, associate professor of pediatrics and critical care at Comer Children's Hospital in Chicago, told CNBC. He's the lead author of the study, which used data from the Pediatric Health Information System database and involved an examination of 31 children's hospitals.

Kane said about 20 percent of the youngest children were poisoned by methadone, an opioid used to treat moderate to severe pain or opioid dependence in adults. This means many young children are likely finding their parents' medication and ingesting it, Kane said.

The majority of the opioid-related hospitalizations were of children between the ages of 12 and 17 years old, the data showed. However, one-third of the children that required intensive care due to opioid overdose were under the age of 6. Overall, 37 percent of patients required mechanical ventilation and 20.3 percent required vasopressors, a drug used to raise blood pressure.

Pediatric intensive care unit admissions versus overall admissions

(Source: AAP)

The study highlighted another way the U.S. opioid epidemic is impacting American adults and their children.

Opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, were involved in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, the negative economic effect of the opioid crisis is estimated to be more than $1 trillion from 2001 through last year, health research and consulting institute Altarum said.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump said the federal government would join states, cities and Indian tribes in suing drug companies and distributors over their role in the opioid epidemic. He also said countries that have the death penalty for drug dealing have fewer problems with drug abuse than the United States.

Impact on pediatric critical care

It remains unclear how this increase in opioid-related hospitalizations has impacted pediatric critical care. Kane said it could result in children with nonpreventable illnesses being turned away for care.

Nationwide there are simply not enough pediatric intensive care unit beds for children, Kane said. There are roughly 4,200 pediatric intensive care unit beds in the United States, while adults have 80,000 intensive care unit beds, he said.

"We could essentially be denying access to children with a nonpreventable illness," Kane told CNBC. "But these opioid ingestions are entirely preventable."

The rules governing medication safety haven't changed much over time.

"For children, it's keeping it out of their reach or perhaps locking it away," Kane said. "For infants, you need to keep them away by putting [the drugs] in a medicine cabinet."

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