A new report explores the connection between opioid use and the intestinal birth defect.

Infants whose mothers use opioids during pregnancy are at risk for a host of issues from small head size to dependency on the drugs. Now, a new report suggests an additional health concern for babies exposed to opioids: a possible increased risk of gastroschisis, a birth defect that causes infants to be born with their intestines outside their bodies.  

The report, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed that rates of gastroschisis are increasing around the globe, something that doctors had reported anecdotally. Instances of the condition rose 10% when researchers compared two periods, 2006 to 2010, and 2011 to 2015.

During this time, the rates of infants born exposed to opioids also increased. The report authors found that gastroschisis was more common when the rate of opioid use was also more common. 

“Gastroschisis prevalence was higher in areas with high and medium opioid prescription rates, compared with that in areas with low rates,” the authors of the review wrote. “This ecologic analysis supports the findings from a large case-control study, which suggested that self-reported prescription opioid use in the first trimester was associated with gastroschisis.”

Although researchers looked at the rate of prescription opioids — not illicit opioids — the findings suggest a connection between opioid use and the birth defect, and researchers said there is a need for more information about how opioid use may contribute to gastroschisis.

“These findings provide compelling evidence of the need to better understand the potential contribution of opioid exposure in the etiology of gastroschisis as well as the possible role opioids have played in the observed increases in gastroschisis,” the authors wrote. 

Speaking with Live Science, Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director at the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, said “there’s something changing” in the prevalence of gastroschisis. Although the condition can be corrected with surgery, infants face risks with their digestion early on. Babies with the condition may have to be hospitalized for months following their delivery and surgery. 

Because the CDC report does not provide any concrete answers about why and how opioids may contribute to gastroschisis, the authors said it will be important to conduct more research into the correlation.  

“The findings … can be used to prioritize basic science, public health, and clinical research on opioid exposure during pregnancy and its potential impact on birth defects,” they wrote. “Having a better understanding of all possible effects of opioid use during pregnancy can help provide evidence-based information to health care providers and women about the potential risks to the developing fetus.”

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