FASD mislabelled, more widespread in WA than thought, researcher says

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is far more prevalent in Western Australia than the public is aware and is often mistakenly labelled as other conditions like ADHD, a leading researcher says.

Pregnant woman

Photo: FASD can cause delayed development, birth defects, poor growth and brain damage. (Ian Waldie, file photo: Getty Images

Canadian doctor and academic Julianne Conry is in Perth to speak at a symposium being held at the University of Western Australia on Thursday.

The symposium will explore a range of issues surrounding Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or FASD, which results from prenatal alcohol exposure.

It can cause social and behavioural problems, delayed development, birth defects, poor growth and brain damage.

In Western Australia some research has been undertaken to investigate the prevalence of FASD in remote communities like the Fitzroy Valley in the Kimberley, where one in eight children are believed to be living with the disorder.

However, there is very little data on how it affects the wider community.

These are highly educated women but it doesn’t matter where you live or what your income level is, FASD occurs where drinking occurs.

Dr Julianne Conry

Dr Conry has spent the past 20 years researching and assessing children and adults with FASD in her home town of British Columbia which is considered a leader in diagnosing and supporting people with the condition.

She said it was wrong to think FASD was a problem that only affected Aboriginal people in remote communities and that the public would be shocked to learn how many children are sufferers.

“We’re inclined to think ‘I’m middle class, it isn’t going to affect me’,” Dr Conry said.

“Certainly in North America as women have become employed at higher levels … [they] have begun to drink like the men.

“Then they’re having their children later in life, so they have already established drinking patterns.

“These are highly educated women but it doesn’t matter where you live or what your income level is, FASD occurs where drinking occurs.”

The Telethon Institute’s Raewyn Mutch said it was hard to get an accurate picture of just how many West Australians were affected by FASD because there was limited ability to diagnose it and few places that provided support or care.

Ms Mutch agreed there was a public misconception about which children were either at risk or already suffering from the disorder.

“There’s this shaming of certain parts of the community that are seen to have VB cans lying on the ground and them sitting on the grass and drinking,” she said.

“That’s in contrast to other sectors of our community who are in high heels holding champagne glasses.

“One sector of society is esteemed because of how they drink and socialise, another is shamed.”

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