Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: a hidden epidemic?
The new Department of Health guideline on alcohol says that there is no safe alcohol limit for pregnant women. Alcohol should simply be avoided reports The Conversations US Pilot.
Alcohol exposure during pregnancy can cause damage to the body and brain of the baby, causing a range of lifelong problems. These problems are grouped under the umbrella term “foetal alcohol spectrum disorders” (FASD). The most recognised form of FASD is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). People with FAS have distinctive facial features, are small for their age and have problems with learning.
The exact number of drinks a woman can have before harming her baby is unknown (and is likely to vary from woman to woman), so most countries, including Canada, Australia and the USA, have taken a conservative approach and recommended that no alcohol is the safest option. This new guideline now brings the UK in line with those and many other countries.
Recent research has revealed a large number of problems experienced by people with FASD. Around half of all people with FASD have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), 62% have vision impairment (a rate more than 30 times higher than the general population), 58% have hearing problems (more than 100 times higher than the general population), 83% have speech and language delays and 91% suffer from impulsivity and inappropriate behaviour.
Each person with FASD may have some or all of these problems, and each person may have these problems from a mild to severe degree.
Maybe as prevalent as autism
We don’t know how many people have FASD in the UK, but based on a large review of data from other countries, it’s estimated that it may affect as much as 2% of the population. This would put FASD on a par with well-recognised developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. In fact, a significant proportion of children currently diagnosed with ADHD or autism may have undiagnosed FASD as an underlying cause of their learning problem.
One problem with recognising the extent of the hidden epidemic is that FASD is significantly under reported. For example, out of a search of five years’ worth of outpatient hospital data in England, no cases of FASD were recorded. The researchers also looked at hospital admission data, expecting to find that areas with higher levels of alcohol-related illness in young women (such as in the north-west and north-east of England) would also have higher levels of FASD. This was not the case, suggesting that either FASD is not diagnosed, or it is diagnosed but not routinely recorded in hospital data.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Edmonton and Area Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Network.