Annually, almost one million American children are identified as victims of child abuse, but this number could be woefully underestimated considering how many cases go unreported and unrecognized. According to a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics, part of this problem can be attributed to the lack of attention to pharmaceutical-related abuse. Researchers discovered an alarming number of incidents involving young kids purposely receiving inappropriate doses of substances, enough to warrant bringing awareness to this dangerous abuse. In addition to sedatives, some of the most common drugs used as a form of abuse included antidepressants, antihistamines, and pain killers.
Traditionally, government organizations have arranged child abuse into four categories: sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and neglect. Though these classifications cover the majority of child abuse incidents, none of them directly take into account pharmaceutical-related incidents. As any pediatrician can assert, there are plenty of cases of parents misusing pills, medicine, painkillers, and alcohol to “treat” their children. While some are legitimate mistakes, others are dosed intentionally as a form of punishment or sedation as a reprieve from childcare.
In order to better quantify and assess this emerging form of child abuse, over the course of nearly a decade, researchers inspected the records of the National Poison Data System (NPDS) cases involving children under the age of seven that were deemed “malicious.” Each year, about 160 such malicious cases were reported, with 13.8 percent resulting in significant health consequences and 1.2 percent culminating in fatalities. In general, the younger the child, the more likely he or she was to suffer from pharmaceutical abuse, which correlates with statistics on other forms of child abuse. Younger children were also more likely to be permanently injured or die from this abuse.
For the purposes of the study, researchers did not include non-pharmaceutical substances such as poison in their data, although those chemicals would certainly increase the number of NPDS’s malicious cases. More than half of the pharmaceutical incidents involved at least one form of sedative and many of the abused children were found to have more than one medication in their systems.
Hopefully, this study will be the first of many and raise awareness to the dangers and prevalence of pharmaceutical abuse. Considering how easy it is to conceal this sort of abuse except in cases of serious injury and death, it is likely that the NPDS’s reports under-represent parents’ non-therapeutic medication use on their children. Because most child abuse victims are subject to chronic abuse, catching incidents like low doses early on could help prevent more grave consequences in the future.