Long-term unemployment linked to increase in babies born with NAS

Summer 2019

Babies born after being exposed to opioids before birth are more likely to be delivered in regions of the U.S. with high rates of long-term unemployment and lower levels of mental health services, according to a study from researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the RAND Corporation.

Studying more than 6.3 million births in a diverse group of eight states, the study found that rural counties plagued by long-term unemployment had significantly higher rates of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome as compared to urban counties with lower unemployment rates.

Counties with shortages of mental health providers also had higher levels of neonatal abstinence syndrome as compared to other counties. The association was observed primarily in urban areas.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the first to examine the association between long-term economic conditions, health care provider shortage areas and the incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome, which can occur when babies are chronically exposed to opioids before birth.

Stephen Patrick, MD, MPH, MS, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy and lead author of the paper, and his colleagues have shown previously that one consequence of the nation’s opioid epidemic has been a sharp increase in the number of newborns who show signs of withdrawal from opioids. In 2014, the average was one infant born every 15 minutes in the U.S. with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Researchers from Vanderbilt and RAND analyzed information about 6.3 million births from 2009 through 2015 in the 580 counties in Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Tennessee and Washington. Those cases were compared to the 10-year unemployment rate for each of the counties, as well as factors about health care workforce levels.

Counties with persistently elevated levels of unemployment had higher rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome, with 20.1 cases per 1,000 births, compared to 7.8 cases per 1,000 births in the counties with the lowest unemployment rates.

– by Holly Fletcher

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