FDA Approves Addictive OxyContin for Children as Young as 11-years-old

By Zachary Siegel 08/17/15

The controversial move has sparked grave concern, though some expressed the need for children to receive proper pain management.

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For pain “severe enough to require daily, around-the-clock, long term opioid treatment,” the ill-famed painkiller OxyContin has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for children ages 11 to 16.

Immediate reactions have expressed concern. "Among adolescents who are prescribed OxyContin, a small but significant number are going to become addicted," Scott Hadland, an expert in adolescent medicine and substance abuse treatment, told USA Today.

Studies show that nearly one in 25 high school seniors has abused OxyContin, Hadland said.

In 2007, the manufacturers of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, paid out $635 million in criminal fines after pleading guilty to false marketing charges after many pain patients became addicted. Currently, the Big Pharma giant is entangled in a lengthy suit filed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which accuses Purdue of contributing to the heroin epidemic that has ravaged the state.

Many others have traced the origins of the heroin epidemic to prescription painkiller abuse. According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, four out of five new heroin users started on painkillers before switching to heroin.

But doctors who treat children with terminal cancer and other conditions marked by chronic pain affirm that OxyContin will improve the quality of life for many of their patients.

"Although thankfully uncommon, some children can experience prolonged periods of substantial chronic pain from conditions like cancer," said Dr. Chris Feudtner, who directs the Department of Medical Ethics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. For children in pain, powerful pain medications can offer tremendous relief, he said.

Feudtner also spoke to the potentiality of opioid addiction in children. But he noted, "Children rarely get 'hooked' on these medications the way that adults can."

Aside from treating pain, the FDA approval is expected to make it safer in the long run for children in dire need of pain management. When necessary, doctors have already been prescribing OxyContin and other powerful painkillers to children, but used adult clinical trials to guide their decisions. Now that pediatric data is being collected, it will provide health care practitioners with the specific information they need to use OxyContin safely in children.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.