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article imageGrowing Pains: The Ethics Of Giving Morphine To Premature Babies

By Michelle Duffy     Jan 24, 2008 in Health
A new U.S. report this week suggests that premature babies who have to undergo certain procedures feel more pain throughout their lives than previously thought, according to tests carried out on lab rats
In America, medical researchers from the University of South Carolina have discovered that rats who were given morphine in the first few hours of their lives felt more pain than others later in life.
The drug is a common part of pain relief for premature babies who have to endure very painful tests and procedures as they grown and hopefully become stronger. It was found that as these babies grew up, they were more sensitive to pain than babies were had no problems at birth.
Premature babies have to go through literally hundreds of tests while they fight for their lives in hospitals, yet the new study has not so much given answers, but raised questions as to the care of premature babies in special care units as a whole.
The results printed in New Scientist has given way to much pondering as to the way procedures are carried out on premature babies. The study took rats who were born normally and given injections of morphine for the first nine days of their lives. Pain tests were carried out after a few weeks and the results showed that the rats who had been given the injections appeared to feel more pain than those who were not. Rats were specifically used for this experiment because their development from birth is not unlike that of a human baby.
As the rat reaches their "teens" at around six weeks old, tests were carried out on them to see how they reacted to pain. Rats who were given doses of morphine at birth reacted more sensitively to pain that those who weren't.
In today's world, around 3 per cent of babies are born prematurely to such an extent that they need 24-hour care in a hospital environment. Tests are carried out on these tiny babies and pain relief is given also. As a baby cannot tell someone how much pain he/she is in, doctors rely on physical reactions to procedures and morphine is administered accordingly.
Naturally, all this does not make for pleasant reading and the mere thought that a premature baby has enough to deal with without some doctor coming along and making the pain of living even more unbearable is a pretty hard pill to swallow for the rest of us, so the results have taken a shift away from the actual study and moved towards question of ethics instead. We are, of course alarmed that children have to endure pain, at any age, so this study has fuelled certain experts with regard to baby unit practice.
Nevertheless, the study has reopened other previous studies which have resulted in information on how our children deal with pain. In Canada, some years ago, a study showed that children who had been circumcised without anesthetic felt more pain in later life than those who weren't. This was found when these children were given their school immunisations at a later date.
Speaking from the UK was Professor Malcolm Levene of Leeds School of Medicine, who specialises in pediatrics, who said,
"Of course if there are adverse affects of giving morphine to infants then we need to look into them, and this is a very interesting - and indeed plausible - study. But ultimately we are interested in the option which causes the least amount of harm. The mortality rate is higher for unsedated babies, not to mention the fact that it would be totally unacceptable to wilfully expose newborn infants to severe pain."
It appears the medical profession has come under a catch-22 situation -- do we continue to ease the pain premature babies experience while they are in our care now, or do we make sure they lead a pain-free existence in later life?
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