There is an epidemic sweeping the country that is taking the lives of more than 60,000 people a year, and that epidemic is spreading to include the youngest of victims: babies and toddlers.
The epidemic is not some horrible disease. Instead, it’s a danger that's lurking in medicine cabinets and cupboards around the nation—prescription opioid medications—and they are putting even the most innocent at risk.
Adult addiction and dependence on opioids has been a growing problem, with roots stemming from doctors' initial lack of knowledge about how truly addictive the drugs are, the deliberate withholding of information by drug manufacturers, a lack of other treatment options for chronic pain, along with a stigma about addiction and how it should be treated.
The growing use of opioid addiction from prescription medications among adults has been labeled the “opioid crisis” and last month President Donald Trump vowed to label the crisis as national emergency in order to flood states with federal crisis funding to help manage it.
So, just how bad has the crisis gotten, and how is it affecting children?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths in children from accidental opioid ingestion have risen from 16 in 1999 to 87 in 2015. The problem is even more widespread in certain communities around the country, such as Utah, where opioid dependence rates are above average. According to theNew York Times, one Salt Lake City doctor recalled treating four toddlers who had overdosed on opioids in one night.
Utah represents an example of just how widely available these types of drugs are. With that accessibility, children are at risk for encountering them, either ingesting them accidentally or as a direct result of care providers’ neglect. In Utah, a state with 3 million people, 7,200 opioid prescriptions are filled every single day. The CDC also notes that the amount of opioid prescriptions overall in the country has quadrupled from 1999 to 2015. That’s a lot of drugs and a lot of risk.
What’s most frightening about the opioid epidemic is how difficult it is to talk about. Family members of individuals who might be using opioids might not know how to talk to one another about their drug use out of fear of offending them, or a user might hide the true extent of his or her addiction, not disclosing that medications are in their home.
When she was born, Ella Maintz was given between a zero- and 1-percent chance of survival. Her lungs had collapsed, and she was suffering from both hypertension and low blood oxygen. Doctors didn’t expect her to survive the helicopter flight from Springfield, Mo. to St. Louis for an operation. Not only did Ella make it through the flight and surgery, but she was also breathing on her own, gaining weight and breast-feeding just a week later. Better yet, despite a prolonged period of time when her brain was only receiving 50 percent of the required oxygen, Ella suffered no apparent brain damage.