Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Is More Prevalent Than We Thought

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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Most of us think of fetal alcohol syndrome—where a mother’s alcohol consumption has an adverse effect on her gestating baby—as problem of the past. Women know better than to drink during pregnancy, right? Or maybe we think of it as something reserved for only a small portion of people.

But a study published in JAMA is alerting us all of the fact that fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASDs) are actually much more prevalent than we all realized, affecting up to 5 times as many children as previously thought. As The New York Times points out, the new estimates of children suffering from FASDs are actually on par with the number of children who are diagnosed with autism.

The study researchers collected data from about 6,000 first graders from 4 diverse communities in the U.S., including the Midwest, Rocky Mountain, Southeast, and Pacific Southwest regions. At each site, the children were studied over the course of two academic years. The children were evaluated for signs of FASD, and their mothers or other close relatives were interviewed regarding prenatal alcohol exposure.

The prevalence of FASD was measured as somewhere between 1.1 to 5%, but even that is a conservative estimate. “Using a ‘weighted prevalence’ approach that assumed that the rate of FASD in children who were evaluated would be the same in all eligible first-grade children in each community, the estimated prevalence of FASD was higher—ranging from 3.1 to 9.8 percent among the study sites,” explains the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in an editorial about the study.

In fact, as the NIH points out, the majority of children who were found to have FASD by the study researchers had never been formerly diagnosed, which means that the disorder is not only more common than once thought, but also vastly untreated. “This finding suggests that children with FASD often go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed,” they note.

This is scary stuff, folks, especially because FASD is a serious disorder that has lifelong effects on our children. We should all be concerned about this.

As the CDC explains, fetal alcohol syndrome disorders refer to a wide range of conditions which can affect kids in mild or more severe ways. Symptoms include facial abnormalities, small head size and stature, learning disabilities, speech delays, low IQ, poor school performance, and difficulty with reasoning or judgment skills. Physical ailments with the heart, kidney or bones are also possible.

The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) has a zero tolerance approach to alcohol consumption among moms, stating in a 2015 report that “no amount of alcohol intake should be considered safe” for pregnant mom. The CDC has an even harsher take on the whole thing, recommending in 2016 that all sexually active women not using birth control should “not drink alcohol at all”—the reasoning being that half of all pregnancies are unplanned.

And while that may sound totally bonkers to many of us, when you consider how vulnerable developing babies are and how devastating the consequences of drinking while pregnant can be, you can see where they are coming from.

What can be especially confusing to moms is that we’ve all heard stories of some women who can drink a little during pregnancy and have no problems. But for others, one small glass of wine can have dire consequences.

“There’s probably no two women on the planet who drank the same amount on the same day of pregnancy,” Susan Astley, director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnostic and Prevention Network at the University of Washington, tells The New York Times. “And alcohol doesn’t impact every fetus in the same way.”

Besides the fact that better education and support should exist for pregnant moms (or any mom who might become pregnant), we also need to be aware of the fact that more children than we realize might be affected by FASD—all without any of us really knowing. This is something that educators, or anyone who works with children, need to become aware of.

“Prenatal alcohol exposure is a leading preventable cause of developmental disabilities worldwide,” NIAAA Director George F. Koob, explained. “The findings of this study confirm that FASD is a significant public health problem, and strategies to expand screening, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment are needed to address it.”

YES: we must educate and take action. All babies deserve the best, and we need to figure out a way to make sure that fetal alcohol syndrome disorders become much less common than they are fast becoming. And we need to do it now.

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