Fentanyl Exposure During Pregnancy Linked to Cleft Palate, Other Birth Defects: Study

Researchers believe they have identified a new specific syndrome linked to fentanyl pregnancy exposure, which can cause children to be born with cleft palate birth defects and an unusually small head.

The findings of a recent study suggest that exposure to the powerful opioid pain killer, fentanyl, during pregnancy may be linked to physical deformities, including cleft palates, clubbed feet and other birth defects in newborns.

In a recent report published in the medical journal Genetics in Medicine Open, a team of pediatric researchers found that several babies who experienced in utero exposure to nonprescription fentanyl were born with similar physical abnormalities and other health complications.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used to treat severe and chronic pain. The pain medication is between 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and has become an increasingly popular painkiller in recent years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated fentanyl has become the most dangerous drug in the United States.

Prenatal Fentanyl Exposure Linked to Birth Defects

In this new study, researchers analyzed the medical history of six infants born with the same physical traits after nonprescription fentanyl pregnancy exposure. They all had difficulty feeding and shared several birth defects, including distinctive facial features, smaller sized heads, shortened stature, and other physical deformities of the fingers, hands, feet, and genitals.

At least three of the infants had abnormal brain development and abnormal metabolism of cholesterol, which resolved within months after birth.

Clinicians from other institutions contributed four additional cases of infants born with the same physical characteristics and abnormal cholesterol metabolism, as seen in the other infants. However, researchers indicated their facial features were not as distinctive as the other cases.

The infants’ conditions were similar to those diagnosed with Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome, a developmental disorder that causes learning disabilities and physical birth defects, including the distinctive facial features and small head sizes seen in the study participants. However, pathogenic and genetic testing ruled out the condition and other potential factors.

This prompted researchers to evaluate the medical history of the infants, and investigate the possibility of a new syndrome related to fentanyl use, as they were all exposed to multiple drugs, including fentanyl.

“The additional cases contributed by other clinicians support the causal relationship of the prenatal fentanyl exposure,” the pediatricians concluded. “In light of the ongoing fentanyl use epidemic, public health impact of the novel syndrome associated with prenatal fentanyl exposure is likely to be significant.”

Researchers indicate that further evaluation of their findings is needed to determine the potential growth, behavioral, and intellectual effects prenatal fentanyl exposure has on babies while they are still developing and throughout their lifetime.

Fentanyl and Opioid Pregnancy Risks

While fentanyl is a legally prescribed medication, it has been linked to more overdose deaths than any other drug in the U.S. It is commonly abused for non-medical purposes and is also added to other illegal substances that users may not be aware of, which can result in accidental overdose.

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There have been numerous studies linking adverse birth outcomes to fentanyl and other opioid use. Prior studies have indicated opioid use during pregnancy may lead to debilitating birth defects, including exposed intestines. In recent years, neonatal abstinence syndrome problems have increased due to the worsening opioid epidemic, leading to serious long-term health concerns for children.

Infants born with opioid withdrawal symptoms have skyrocketed in recent years, with estimates indicating opioid addiction among pregnant women has increased more than 300%.

In July, researchers indicated that opioid addicted mothers were more than twice as likely to deliver a baby who will die within the first year of their life, even if opioid abuse was reduced or eliminated in early pregnancy.

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