I recently sat down with pediatrician, writer for the American Council of Science and Health, and IWF visiting fellow Dr. Jamie Wells for a wide ranging conversation about American’s opioid crisis, focusing on one area that’s rarely discussed—the children who are born addicted to opioids and who suffer from a painful condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is drug withdrawal after birth. 

Dr. Wells explained that this condition can lead to tremendous medical problems—a low birth rate, preterm birth, jitteriness, and even learning disabilities down the road. There’s been a five-fold increase of children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in the US in the last several years. Dr. Wells also explained that the medical field is also seeing an increase in accidental ingestion of opioids by children, which has led to much higher rates of pediatric intensive care unit admissions.

Hospitals are also reporting that they are seeing higher rates of hospitalizations among teenagers. These opioid-related hospitalizations often require the highest level of hospital care, which means massive costs.

Dr. Wells explained that the way to solve this problem is to keep anti-opioid treatment family centric. Otherwise, these problems will persist. 

Dr. Wells and I also discussed how the opioid crisis has led to pharmaceutical companies getting a bad rap and opioid being marred. The fact is, opioids have helped millions of people live without pain and lead productive lives. 

As far as who’s to blame for this crisis, Dr. Wells advises recognizing that the opioid issue is complex and avoid the folly of finding one entity to blame.  She also pointed out that many factors have contributed to today’s crisis: prescription sharing, doctor shopping, gaming the system, pill mills, the aggressive lobbying of the pain movement, and the medical field’s willingness to add pain as the fifth vital sign, which offered perverse incentives to over prescribe and perhaps a willingness among doctors to give these medications to patients who didn’t really need such strong pain medications.

The point: the opioid crisis is complex and one entity can’t be blamed entirely.

This led to our conversation about how activists have taken advantage of the opioid crisis to file lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. Jamie asks—what good will these lawsuits do?

She added that pain medications do tremendous things when used properly. Instead of silly lawsuits, Dr. Wells suggests a two-fold approach: 1) getting rehab services to those who are addicted, 2) work to prevent further addictions, and 3) help those who are currently addicted find future success and stability. 

Dr. Wells agreed that these lawsuits will have a deleterious affect on pharmaceutical companies by drawing funding away from the research and development that could be done to help those who are suffering with painful diseases and programs that could help those who have become addicted.