More Research Needed on the Health Impacts of Medical Cannabis on Children, Scientists Say
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Medical cannabis can successfully treat seizures and the side effects of chemotherapy in young children, but doctors need to be more aware of the potential adverse effects of medical cannabis on children’s mental and physical health, according to new research.
The new paper from researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU), presented last week at the 31st Annual International Cannabinoid Research Society Symposium (ICRS), is reportedly the first-ever meta-analysis of pediatric medical cannabis patients to focus on assessing the health benefits and risks of the drug.
In addition to finding good promise in the treatment of seizures, the researchers noted that treatment with high doses of cannabidiol (CBD) was also related to decreased appetite in the children. Fatigue and feelings of apathy were also seemingly related to treatment with other medical cannabis products.
In light of their findings, the researchers are calling for additional studies into the health effects of CBD and other medical cannabis products on children. Doctors and parents should also be made more aware of the need to monitor these young patients for changes in their physical and mental health.
Pay attention to a loss of appetite in young medical cannabis patients, researchers warn
The meta-analysis screened the MEDLINE, EMBASE, and clinicaltrials.gov databases for studies evaluating the efficacy and safety outcomes of medical cannabis in children versus control groups of non-cannabis using children. From a total of more than nine thousand initial results, just seven relevant studies were found which passed through the researchers’ selection criteria. In total, these studies covered data from around 500 unique patients.
“There have been studies on the use of medical cannabis for epilepsy in children, for chemotherapy and cancer, and more and more on the effects of medical cannabis for children with autism,” explained senior author Professor Ilan Matok to NoCamels. “But since medical cannabis is not [globally] a licensed drug, people have been restrained to use it on children because of its negative connotation. There haven’t been enough studies to know whether it’s appropriate for children.”
From these studies, which included research done using CBD products as well as medicinal cannabis products, the researchers found that treatment with CBD is associated with a 50 percent reduction in seizure rates in young patients with Dravet syndrome, a form of drug-resistant epilepsy. Other medical cannabis products were also successful in curbing feelings of nausea and episodes of vomiting in young children undergoing chemotherapy.
However, alongside these positive health effects, the researchers also uncovered a dose-dependent association where high doses of CBD would suppress the children’s’ appetite. Similarly, they also found cases where using other medical cannabis products was associated with feelings of fatigue, apathy, dizziness, and lethargy.
“This is important to note because loss of appetite puts a child’s physical development in jeopardy,” Matok explained. “Pediatricians have to know this and be aware of it in order to follow up.”
“Children aren’t small adults, medical cannabis affects kids differently, and doctors need to pay close attention to those differences,” Matok added in a press release. “The goal of our meta-analysis is to shed light on this area and provide doctors and parents with a more informed view of the potential of cannabis to help or harm their young patients.”
Medical cannabis and young children
In June 2018, off the back of multiple successful phase three clinical trials, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted its first official approval to a cannabis-derived medicine. This medicine, Epidiolex, is an oral solution of CBD intended for treating seizures in two rare and severe forms of epilepsy that develop in childhood, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
One year later, after sustained campaigning from the families of children with these forms of drug-resistant epilepsy to see medicinal cannabis legalized in the UK, regulators in England also followed suit in approving Epidiolex for use on the National Health Service (NHS). In 2020, the drug was rescheduled to be made available as an over-the-counter medication in all parts of the United Kingdom, as a way of making the medication more accessible for these children.
In addition to pharmaceutical CBD formulations, combination CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) cannabis oil have also been investigated for the treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy in children, and to great effect.
In a 2018 open-label trial using combination CBD:THC cannabis oil at a 50:1 ratio, researchers found that seizure frequency in children with Dravet syndrome fell by more than 70 percent across all of the children participating in the study. But notably, this trial also detected problems with fatigue and weight loss as potential side effects to treatment with this medical cannabis oil – again highlighting the need for prescribing physicians and parents to be more aware of the possible ill effects of treatment.