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‘No alcohol, no risk’ is the message on international FASD Day

Suzanne Costello, CEO of Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues, said it’s in a child’s best interests for its mother not to drink alcohol while pregnant due to the risk of damaging the physical and mental development of the unborn child.

“Damage to the unborn child from alcohol takes a number of forms and, as well as physical problems, can show up as behavioural, social, learning and attention difficulties in childhood, adolescence and throughout adulthood. As such, there can be lifelong consequences for the physical and mental health of an unborn child exposed to alcohol in the womb.”

Ms Costello said that, despite these risks, pregnant women in Ireland can receive conflicting advice about alcohol consumption during pregnancy and called for a clear and consistent message of ‘no alcohol, no risk’ to be delivered across all healthcare providers.

“Pregnant women can often receive mixed messages, from various sources, including healthcare providers, about drinking alcohol during pregnancy. This conflicting advice arises, in some part, due to uncertainty regarding the amount of alcohol required to impair the foetus and the timing of alcohol exposure,” said Ms Costello.

“However, no quantity of alcohol has ever been proven to be safe to consume during pregnancy and no period of pregnancy has been shown to be immune to the effects of alcohol on the unborn child. What is very clear is that there are no benefits for the unborn child from exposure to alcohol, just risks, and these risks increase in line with how much alcohol an expectant mother drinks.

“The forthcoming Public Health Alcohol Bill provides for the introduction of labelling of alcohol products, which is a very welcome development, as it is another way to help people make more informed choices around their health and wellbeing in relation to alcohol. These new labels will include health warnings about the risks associated with alcohol consumption during pregnancy.”

Michele Savage, of FASD Ireland, said that children who suffer from prenatal alcohol exposure are left with irreversible, lifelong consequences that are heart-breaking to witness, especially as they can be completely avoided by simply not drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

“Brain damage from prenatal alcohol exposure causes sensory integration issues, slow rates of cognitive processing, impairs a child’s working memory and organisational skills, so they simply cannot fulfil their potential. It is important to remember that it is the brain damage from prenatal alcohol exposure that causes this and it has nothing to do with the efforts of a child, parent or teacher. Changes of school, suspensions and expulsions feature a lot in the lives of these children and their families, despite the best efforts of many, or all, concerned. Parents and carers have to constantly do battle for the children to be understood and appropriately helped.”

Ms Savage said that children affected by FASD do not mature as they should and cannot cope as well as their unaffected peers, which can be very upsetting and stressful for them, particularly as they realise their own limitations.

“These youngsters don’t always, or even often, safely or successfully cope socially in their age group and are very vulnerable to being exploited, bullied or abused in childhood, or as adults. Facing into adulthood is a huge cause for concern – a true battle between the rights and expected responsibilities of young people with very uneven capacities, most of whom will not get and keep a job or ever to be able to live a fully independent life.”

Notes:

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy carries a risk of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and conditions on the Foetal Alcohol Spectrum of Disorders (FASD). Children born with FAS – the most rare, but most easily recognisable condition on the spectrum – have been exposed to high levels of alcohol during pregnancy and can experience problems with their growth, facial defects, as well as life-long learning and behavioural problems. Drinking heavily during pregnancy can also increase the chances of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as increasing the risk of premature delivery, miscarriage and stillbirth. Partial Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, (pFAS), Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND), and Alcohol Related Birth Defects are far less easily diagnosed. FASD refers to the wide range of less obvious – and much more common – effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Although children with FASD can look healthy and normal, they can have issues such as sight and hearing difficulties; problems paying attention and following simple directions, as well as other learning difficulties.

There is no national register of FASD, therefore the number of cases of FASD, FAS and ARND in Ireland are unknown, while FASD is also commonly misdiagnosed or unconfirmed. However, studies on alcohol consumption during pregnancy suggest the number of affected children in Ireland may be significant. The largest Irish study of its kind, at the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital, found that almost two-thirds (63%) of the more than 43,000 women surveyed at the hospital between 1999 and 2005 said they drank alcohol during their pregnancy. A recently published BMJ study found that Ireland emerged as the country with the highest rates of drinking, both before (90%) and during (82%) pregnancy, and of binge drinking, before (59%) and during (45%) pregnancy, based on estimates from the Screening for Pregnancy Endpoints (SCOPE) study. Estimates of drinking during pregnancy from the Growing up in Ireland (GUI) and the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS) studies were substantially lower (20-46%), but still at levels that warrant serious concern. The researchers concluded that alcohol use during pregnancy is highly prevalent and evidence shows that gestational alcohol exposure may occur in over 75% of pregnancies in Ireland. The number of pregnant women who drank heavily in the three studies was small, but the researchers point out that “since most women who consume alcohol do so at lower levels where the offspring growth and development effects are less well understood (than at higher levels), the widespread consumption of even low levels of alcohol during pregnancy is a significant public health concern”.

9 September 2015             Alcohol Action Ireland

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