Overdose deaths in pregnant, postpartum women tripled in as many years: NIH

Overdose deaths among pregnant and postpartum women nearly tripled between 2018 and 2021, according to a study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published Wednesday.

The rate of overdoses increased from 4.9 per 100,000 women between the ages 35-44 to 15.8 in 2021, the NIH said.

The study authors said the increasing overdose rate could signal that there are still significant barriers to addiction treatment among vulnerable populations.

“The stigma and punitive policies that burden pregnant women with substance use disorder increase overdose risk by making it harder to access life-saving treatment and resources,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in a statement.

“Reducing barriers and the stigma that surrounds addiction can open the door for pregnant individuals to seek and receive evidence-based treatment and social support to sustain their health as well as their child’s health,” she continued.

The study was mounted in order to better understand how the COVID pandemic has impacted overdose rates and people with substance abuse disorders, the NIH said. Overall, overdose rates rose sharply during the pandemic.

A similar study in late 2022 found that overdose deaths among pregnant women significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NIH study found that women who died of overdoses while pregnant were more likely to be younger than those who died of other complications during pregnancy. Overdose deaths were also more likely to be outside of health care facilities, despite a majority having access to high-quality hospitals.

“These results reflect the persistent national overdose crisis and demonstrate that pregnancy is an urgent time for interventions that can reduce the risk of overdose,” said Emily Einstein, NIDA Science Policy Branch chief and a study co-author.

“Stigmatizing and penalizing women with substance use disorders makes it very hard for them to seek help for drug use and receive routine prenatal care,” she continued. “Effective treatments and medical services exist — unfettered access is needed to help mothers and children survive.”