Rise in serious birth defect might be tied to opioid use, study says

A potentially deadly birth defect in which babies are born with exposed intestines is on the rise, and researchers are concerned that it might be tied to the opioid epidemic.

The birth defect, called gastroschisis, happens early in a mother's pregnancy when the walls of the baby's abdomen don't develop properly. While science hasn't figured out the exact cause of the condition, there are risk factors. Teen mothers are more likely to give birth to a baby with the defect, as are women who drink and smoke. Now it appears there's an association with prescription opioid use.

"An analysis found a higher prevalence of gastroschisis in areas where opioid prescriptions rates were high," researchers said in a new report published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday.

A discovery in counties with higher opioid use

In their latest analysis, researchers found that the rate of gastroschisis in the United States was 1.6% higher in counties with high opioid prescription rates than in counties with low rates of prescription opioid use. Counties with medium rates of opioid use were 1.4% higher than those with lower rates.

While the birth defect continues to be most common in mothers under the age of 20, the largest increase in cases occurred in older mothers.

Those findings echo the results of prior studies, the CDC said, including a study of over 17,000 mothers which found an association between birth defects and opioid use just before pregnancy through the first trimester.

While the connections are intriguing, the CDC warns that the current analysis doesn't prove a cause and effect, only that more research is needed "to better understand the potential contribution of opioid exposure" to the cause of gastroschisis and the rise in cases.

Rising prevalence of serious birth defect

According to the CDC, less than 2,000 babies are typically born with the defect each year in the United States. But there has been an alarming rise over the last two decades: In 2016, the CDC reported that cases of gastroschisis had doubled between 1995 and 2005 for mothers of every race and age group.

Those numbers increased another 30% in the six years between 2006 and 2012, researchers said in the new report, with the increase again affecting all ages and races of mothers.

Gastroschisis typically causes the baby's intestines to poke through a hole in its abdomen near the belly button. Because there is no protective sack around intestines, they can easily become irritated by amniotic fluid and begin to twist, swell or shorten. At times other organs, such as the liver and stomach, also protrude through the opening.

The baby needs immediate surgery to put the organs back into the baby's body and repair the opening. Still, many infants with the condition have problems digesting breast milk and food and absorbing nutrients, which can affect the baby's development. Some babies die or suffer life-long problems from the defect.

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