By: Kelly Hack, Content Writer
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the United States have increased by more than 1,000 percent from 2011 through 2016.1 The increased availability of illicitly manufactured fentanyl has contributed to the prevalence of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) or neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) throughout the United States. There was a greater than five-fold increase in the proportion of babies born with NAS from 2004 to 2014, when an estimated 32,000 infants were born with NAS/NOWS —equivalent to one baby suffering from opioid withdrawal born approximately every 15 minutes.2
In response to an ongoing opioid epidemic, medical professionals and advocates are invested in providing education, resources, testing, and preventative care in efforts to combat one of the most powerful opioids in the world —Fentanyl. This synthetic, opioid is extremely addictive and when used while pregnant can cause devastating outcomes to the fetus including neural tube defects, congenital heart defects, gastroschisis, stillbirth, and pre-term delivery.3
Newborns are often diagnosed with NAS/NOWS as a direct result of a sudden interruption of fetal exposure to prescription and illicit substances that were used or abused by the mother. Diagnosing an infant with NAS/NOWS is often assessed by identifying the following symptoms: tremors, jitteriness, irritability, excessive crying, and diarrhea. These indicators have been determined in the medical field as the standards for identifying a compromised central nervous system. Prenatal use & abuse of fentanyl can increase an infant’s risk for developing NAS/NOWS.
What Makes Fentanyl So Dangerous?
According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), fentanyl is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin.4 Its initial development was intended as a licit intravenous anesthetic; however, it has now become a public health threat as pharmaceutical products are subjected to theft, fraudulent prescriptions and illicit or less regulated distribution and manufacturing. The drug is often abused by injecting, snorting / sniffing, oral tablets / pills or removing the gel on fentanyl patches and then injecting or ingesting. The popularity of fentanyl within drug addicted communities derive from the addictive effects the drug produces —relaxation, euphoria, pain relief, and sedation. However, abused fentanyl also produces fatal side effects including: confusion, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, urinary retention, pupillary constriction, and respiratory depression.
Fentanyl’s Long-Term Effects on Fetus
Prenatal substance abuse can lead to long-term, irreversible damage to a developing fetus. In relation to fentanyl, these effects can consist of the following when associated with NAS/NOWS:5
- Cognitive and motor development deficiencies
- Vision complications
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
- Susceptible to future substance abuse
Fentanyl and Toxicology Confirmation
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, NAS/NOWS is a clinical diagnosis, however toxicological confirmation is necessary to identify the exact type of substance that the mother was using or abusing and to confirm or rule out the use of other licit or illicit substances during pregnancy.6
Due to the recent increase of cases regarding pregnant women and fentanyl exposure, it is critical to utilize testing that can help detect the latest drugs of abuse. Through internal research and strategic analysis, our laboratory is combating the growing epidemic of fentanyl use among pregnant women and those of childbearing age, with the development of testing for fentanyl in both umbilical cord tissue and meconium. As the first and only laboratory to offer fentanyl testing utilizing both advanced newborn specimens, our partnerships are provided with the opportunity to proactively and effectively address the alarming rates of prenatal fentanyl use. Both meconium and umbilical cord tissue belong to the baby, therefore maternal consent is not needed to proceed in testing.
Umbilical Cord Tissue
The umbilical cord tissue is available immediately for 100 percent of births and requires only 1 collection by 1 collector. This specimen’s look back provides detection up to approximately 20 weeks prior to birth, the most advanced newborn specimen on the market.
Meconium has been recognized for decades as the “gold standard” for the detection of substances. It is the first stool of an infant produced in utero, consisting of epithelial cells, bile, mucous, and is odorless with a very dark, tar-like appearance. Meconium is uniquely developed during gestation with exclusive capabilities of preserving substances exposed prenatally up to approximately 20 weeks prior to birth. The average start of a meconium passage after birth occurs within 24-48 hrs., in most newborns it is generally passed in the first day or so of life.
Our methodology and advanced instrumentation contribute to our laboratory’s efficient turnaround time. Generally, the standard turnaround time for reporting negative screening test results is the next business day, with an additional 1-2 business days for specimens that require confirmatory testing. Turnaround time begins from receipt of the valid specimen–accompanied by a properly documented valid order– into the laboratory. Some tests require additional time to process and will fall outside the standard turnaround time window.
As one of the only laboratories in the nation focusing exclusively on substance abuse testing, we are consistently adapting our services to meet the needs of our clients and communities. The validity of newborn toxicology results has never been more imperative. Through our partnership and services, we can customize a flexible comprehensive drug testing program based on your population health needs. Today’s substance abuse landscape is drastically different than it used to be-collaboration is vital in supporting our mission of protecting and enriching lives.
- Spencer, M.P.H., M., Warner, Ph.D, M., Bastian, B.S., B., Trinidad, M.P.H., M.S., J. and Hedegaard, M.D., M.S.P.H., H. (2019). “National Vital Statistics Reports.” [online] Cdc.gov. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr68/nvsr68_03-508.pdf [Accessed 17 Sep. 2019].
- Drugabuse.gov. (2019). “Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Use and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.” [online] Available at: https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/dramatic-increases-in-maternal-opioid-use-neonatal-abstinence-syndrome [Accessed 17 Sep. 2019].
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention, U. (n.d.). “Pregnancy and Opioid Pain Medications.” Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/pdf/pregnancy_opioid_pain_factsheet-a.pdf.
- Department of Education, U. (n.d.). “Drugs of Abuse Guide” (2017)(pp. 40-41) (United States).
- “Long-Term Outcomes of Infants With Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.” (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.seattlechildrens.org/healthcare-professionals/education/continuing-medical-nursing-education/neonatal-nursing-education-briefs/long-term-outcomes-of-infants-with-nas/
- Kocherlakota, P. (2014, August 01). “Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.” Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/134/2/e547
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