WVU study: WV infant drug exposure is 10x higher than the national rate

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — According to researchers at West Virginia University Health Sciences, one in eight infants born in West Virginia between 2020 and 2022 were exposed to opioids, cannabis or stimulants while in the womb.

(WVU) Amna Umer, pediatric research associate professor, WVU School of Medicine

Pediatric Research Associate Professor Amna Umer said in a WVU release that her team’s study found that the prenatal rates of opioid and stimulant exposure in West Virginia were 10 times higher than national rates.

Umer analyzed data from 34,412 live births in West Virginia of “singleton” babies (not twins or triplets) and found that 12.2% of newborns were exposed to drugs such as oxycodone, methamphetamine or marijuana. Data for the research came from Project WATCH, a state-mandated infant-monitoring tool that tracks information on nearly 99% of births in West Virginia to identify at-risk infants.

“We showed substance exposure to stimulants alone was associated with preterm birth, whereas opioids alone and cannabis alone were associated with low birth weight and infants being small for their gestational age,” Umer said.

The study showed that the average birth weight for infants exposed to both opioids and cannabis fell by 7-17 ounces and are nearly twice as likely to be small for their gestational age. Umer said marijuana was the most common drug seen in infants, with 7.9% of all infants observed being exposed to marijuana.

However, Umer said there are many important factors that Project WATCH isn’t able to capture, which is something to keep in mind as research showed that sociodemographic factors and lifestyle circumstances can play a role in the prevalence of substance use disorders.

“Project WATCH doesn’t capture, the mother’s pre-pregnancy body mass index or whether she is a victim of physical abuse. The tool doesn’t track prenatal alcohol exposure either, although our previous work shows West Virginia’s rural population has a high prevalence of prenatal alcohol exposure,” Umer said.

Although her research may not apply to more populated or racially diverse areas, Umer said their findings could be relevant to other rural and economically disadvantaged areas.

For more details, you can read the full release here.

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