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Drug overdose deaths rise dramatically among pregnant people

Drug overdose deaths among pregnant and postpartum people in the United States have risen sharply in recent years -- especially in 2020, coinciding with the pandemic's onset, a new study says. Photo by widephish/Pixabay
Drug overdose deaths among pregnant and postpartum people in the United States have risen sharply in recent years -- especially in 2020, coinciding with the pandemic's onset, a new study says. Photo by widephish/Pixabay

Dec. 6 (UPI) -- In yet another sobering sign of COVID-19's widespread harm and vulnerable victims, drug overdose deaths among pregnant and postpartum people in the United States have risen sharply in recent years -- especially in 2020, coinciding with the pandemic's onset.

Their drug overdose mortality increased by roughly 81% from pre-pandemic 2017 to 2020 -- and, while pregnancy-associated overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines, heroin and prescription opioids were mostly stable over this time period, large spikes in deaths occurred that involved fentanyl, methamphetamines and cocaine.

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Increases in fentanyl-involved deaths were especially marked in 2020, nearly doubling.

That's according to a research letter published Tuesday in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Dr. Silvia Martins, the study's senior author and professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told UPI "the findings mirror those of overdoses in the general population, in which fentanyl is common and polysubstance use is also common."

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She added in an email that overdoses "might have continued to rise in pregnant and post-partum women after 2020, but we need access to timely data to check if this holds true."

Emilie Bruzelius, a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, is the study's corresponding author.

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In their paper, the two authors note that drug overdose deaths, especially deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, reached record highs in 2020 and 2021.

They said the situation was "likely exacerbated by social, economic, and healthcare disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic."

In light of the study's concerning trends, the main takeaway, according to Martins, is that "there needs to be more investment in prevention and lowering of barriers on access to treatment and harm reduction services for pregnant people using drugs."

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Pregnant and postpartum individuals are at high risk for fatal overdoses, the scientists said.

"Pregnant and postpartum people are known to face barriers to accessing drug treatment and harm reduction services, that when compounded by pandemic-associated stressors, healthcare shutdowns, and an increasingly volatile unregulated drug supply, may have increased fatal overdose risk," Bruzelius said in a news release.

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Of the 7,642 pregnancy-associated deaths occurring among pregnant and postpartum people occurring over the study's four-year-period, the researchers found that 1,249 stemmed from drug overdoses.

These deaths were identified from an analysis of national death certificate data, which includes information on whether the death occurred among a person who was currently or recently pregnant.

The scientists calculated annual overdose mortality rates and examined specific drug types involved in each overdose.

For comparison, the researchers also calculated overdose mortality rates among reproductive age women overall: who were not pregnant.

Over the four-year period, pregnant or postpartum people's drug overdose mortality rate increased more than 80% to a high of 11.85 per 100,000 in 2020.

That compared to a 38% increase among women of reproductive age overall during the same time period.

Martins noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's mortality data has information on the demographic characteristics of the deceased, "but we didn't run sub-analyses checking such demographics.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a part of the National Institutes of Health.

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