High level of foetal alcohol syndrome found in Saldanha Bay

 Jaco Louw, MEC Albert Fritz and Leana Olivier presented findings on a study of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Saldanha Bay. (Naib Mian, GroundUp)

Cape Town – A study commissioned by the Western Cape Department of Social Development (DSD) found that over 6% of children in the West Coast are born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), reports GroundUp.

The findings, presented at a press conference on Monday, come after a three-year study in partnership with the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (Farr).

1 452 of 1 535 grade one learners in the area underwent medical examinations. Focused on the Saldanha Bay district municipal area, the study was the first of its kind to target the prevalence of FASD in a fishing community.

Nobody expected this area to have such a high prevalence, FARR CEO Leana Olivier said.

“There was concern about the level of unemployment in the area and also poverty. We’ve seen in other projects, as soon as poverty… or a feeling of desperation or hopelessness appears in a community, people start drinking more,” Olivier said.

The study, which was completed on 31 March, focused first on discovering the prevalence rate and then on developing awareness-raising strategies and training programs for community members to spread awareness.

The study cost R3.5m over the three years.

According to Robert Macdonald, the head of DSD, 85% of women in the Western Cape know what FASD is.

However, most pregnancies – between 75% and 80% – are unplanned and women drinking in their first trimester might not know they are harming the foetus. This is one the primary reasons FASD rates are so high, Olivier said.

Additionally, the dop system, where labourers are paid with alcohol and which is now illegal and very rare, created a culture of drinking.

Shebeens in some areas continue to propagate the acceptability of drinking, and many labourers still use their wages to purchase cheap alcohol in these establishments.

FASD prevalence is consistently high in South Africa, which has one of the highest rates in the world. Recent studies found a prevalence of just under 10% in Witzenberg and just over 12% in De Aar, the highest rate reported worldwide.

Professor Leslie London, head of the Division of Public Health Medicine at the University of Cape Town, compared numbers in South Africa with those of first nation populations in North America and Australia, saying prevalence rates among the latter are considered high at around one percent.

London said that one of the problems is not so much how many people drink, but the amount of alcohol consumed among drinkers. “It’s a huge inherited problem over centuries,” he told GroundUp.

FASD has physical and mental effects on a child. Along with possible physical deformations, affected children suffer from learning and problem-solving difficulties.

The effects extend beyond the child as well, and cases of FASD cost the state millions of rands in special schooling programs and occupational therapy, Macdonald said. A child’s ability to work when they grow older is also hampered, which creates an additional need for welfare services.

As part of the study, Farr worked with 200 mothers through the Healthy Mother Healthy Baby Programme. During the course of the three years, Olivier reported that none of the mothers gave birth to children with FASD.

The study also focused on teaching community members how to spread awareness of FASD through theatre productions, parenting courses and training sessions at local clinics.

Because some women might still choose to drink while pregnant, the mother’s nutrition is also emphasised. When a woman eats more nutritiously, the severity of FASD is decreased.

Because the average age of mothers with FASD babies is dropping, teenagers also must be aware of the effects of FASD, Olivier said.

The government hopes to develop more programs targeted specifically at young people, according to provincial MEC of Social Development Albert Fritz. The department, for example, must look at programs that engage youth on weekends, he said.

FASD is a 100% avoidable condition, Fritz said. There would be a continued effort to raise awareness.

“It was amazing how hungry the community was to get this information,” Olivier told GroundUp.

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