‘The Pills Are Everywhere’: How the Opioid Crisis Claims Its Youngest Victims

September 20, 2017

New York Times

Julie Turkewtiz

When Penny Mae Cormani died in Utah, her family sang Mormon hymns — “Be Still My Soul” — and lowered her small coffin into the earth. The latest victim of a drug epidemic that is now taking 60,000 lives a year, Penny was just 1.

Increasingly, parents and the police are encountering toddlers and young children unconscious or dead after consuming an adult’s opioids.

At the children’s hospital in Dayton, Ohio, accidental ingestions have more than doubled, to some 200 intoxications a year, with tiny bodies found laced by drugs like fentanyl. In Milwaukee, eight children have died of opioid poisoning since late 2015, all from legal substances like methadone and oxycodone. In Salt Lake City, one emergency doctor recently revived four overdosing toddlers in a night, a phenomenon she called both new and alarming.

“It’s a cancer,” said Mauria Leydsman, Penny’s grandmother, of the nation’s opioid problem, “with tendrils that are going everywhere.”

While these deaths represent a small fraction of the epidemic’s toll, they are an indication of how deeply the American addiction crisis has cut.

And communities from Appalachia to the Rocky Mountains and beyond are feeling its effects at all ages. In August, in the latest sign of the direness of the situation, President Trump said he would declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, a move that could allow cities and states to access federal disaster relief funds.

Eighty-seven children died of opioid intoxication in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from just 16 in 1999. By comparison, gunshot wounds kill four or five times as many children each year.

But at hospitals like Primary Children’s in Utah, drug overdoses now outstrip gun injuries among young people.

“There are no pill parties happening in preschools,” said Dr. Jennifer Plumb, the emergency doctor who recently treated four opioid-sick toddlers in a night. “These kids aren’t making a choice because they are trying to get high on a substance. It’s that the pills are everywhere.”

Unlike infants born with addiction, these children are coming across heroin and other drugs in the days and years after birth.

In Philadelphia this summer, a 9-month-old rolled onto a needle while in bed with her father. Kyleeh Isabella Mazaba, 20 months, died after drinking methadone left in a water bottle in the family van. James Lionel Vessell Jr., 2, swallowed oxycodone pills he found in a purse on his mother’s bed. And in early August, Kentucky officials treated an infant and three emergency responders believed to have been sickened by carfentanil-laced heroin that traveled through the air.

Often, emergency responders attempt to revive children with Narcan, an overdose reversal drug that works on small bodies as well as large ones.

Then come the questions for investigators. How did the substance get there? How did the child find it? Can this be stopped?

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