For every day of the year, there’s an Alberta baby born brain-damaged because his or her mother drank while pregnant.
The Redford government is initiating a new program to cut that number. The premier has mentioned the issue in recent speeches and this month, an associate cabinet minister was handed the mandate of decreasing the incidence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD.
The plan is short on details so far, but those who work with the estimated 23,000 Albertans with some form of FASD – or try to prevent more children being born with brain damage – say the new government push is welcome.
“We’ve had some people in Alberta who have really fought this fight for a long time,” said Mara Thorvaldson, program manager for Calgary’s Aventa Addiction Treatment, which has seven beds set aside for women who are pregnant and at high risk of having a FASD baby.
“Having said that, there are huge gaps. We know there are people who aren’t getting the support that they need, and it costs society.”
Thorvaldson said with more funding, the abstinence-based residential program could immediately fill four more dedicated beds for pregnant women.
FASD is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of disabilities and brain damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.
The most severe form is full fetal alcohol syndrome, which leaves a person affected with signature physical deformities such as a small head, a very thin upper lip and no groove between the upper lip and nose.
People with FASD are significantly more likely than others to need health or disability supports, or end up jobless or in jail.
“This is a very classic . . . example where you’ve got something that’s entirely avoidable, but has huge cost to society both in terms of the quality of life costs for the individuals who have it, and the social costs for dealing of it,” Human Services Minister Dave Hancock said.
Hancock said besides preventing FASD births, the government also wants to improve its early childhood screening for the condition. Other FASD groups would like to see more programs for adults.
Redford first set out her government’s push in May, when she appointed a cabinet that included Frank Oberle in the role of associate minister of services for persons with disabilities. Oberle reports to Hancock and has a focus on both Albertans with disabilities and preventing FASD.
The Alberta government initiated a major push against FASD in 2007. Liberal MLA David Swann said FASD is an area “begging” for more preventive measures, but he’s not convinced the Redford government will put up the money to back its words as energy prices remain volatile.
“I didn’t see it in the budget,” Swann said. “And our government seems to base the stability of our fundamental human services on the price of oil.”