Zika virus is not the birth defect risk Scotland should be most worried about

Alcohol, not the Zika virus, is the Olympian challenge for Scotland when it comes to the brain development of babies, according to prevention author Dr Jonathan Sher

Retrieved from: https://www.holyrood.com/articles/comment/zika-virus-not-birth-defect-risk-scotland-should-be-most-worried-about

Dr Jonathan Sher

Images of babies with severe microcephaly caused by the Zika virus are upsetting. Our hearts go out to these abnormally small-headed babies whose lives and life chances have been compromised – as well as to their families.

With the Rio Olympics now underway, the risks of contracting this birth defect causing illness — from mosquito bites (or sexual relationships with those already infected) — has received an enormous amount of media and governmental attention.

Although low – especially in Scotland (and other definitely non-tropical climates) – Zika is a risk. The warnings and advice from public health officials should be taken seriously.

In an era when brain development has become better understood and highly prized, the prospect of life-long, irreversible brain damage to a baby evokes both fear and sympathy.

And yet, it is more than ironic for Scotland’s media to be so bugged about the Zika virus. It is unlikely that even 5 babies will be born here this year with severe Zika-caused microcephaly.

Meanwhile, it is a very safe bet that at least 500 Scottish babies will be born this year with life-long, irreversible brain damage. The main cause will not be mosquitos, but rather alcohol. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is not new in Scotland, nor (sadly) is the societal and governmental failure to either prevent it or properly support the children and parents affected.

The startling estimate of more than 500 harmed babies born here each year – which adds up to at least 9,000 under 18 year-olds affected in Scotland today — is based upon the most conservative epidemiological evidence from other wealthy, Western nations.

While he was still Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Harry Burns declared that fetal alcohol harm is the leading known, preventable cause of learning disabilities. Our current CMO (an obstetrician), Dr Catherine Calderwood, agrees and offers sound advice.

These harmed-before-birth babies innocently, but significantly, widen Scotland’s education attainment gap. For most brain-damaged children, this gap will remain a chasm no matter what is done later. Recent international research has also revealed a strong association between FASD and major (and costly) adult physical and mental health conditions.

As the Christie Commission highlighted five years ago, prevention remains the best choice. So, why is the Zika virus a crisis in the Scottish imagination that must be dealt with decisively, while the reality of FASD remains low on Scotland’s media and governmental priority list?

There are four main reasons:

* Severe microcephaly (like a Down Syndrome or a Thalidomide baby) is immediately identifiable, whereas (except for the smallest fraction of new-borns) fetal alcohol harm is, and may long remain, invisible.  Our emotional impulse to aid them is dulled by the fact that FASD babies usually look so normal and healthy.

* The media ‘debate’ about fetal alcohol harm has been confused and misleading; too often pitting two extreme (and factually wrong) sides against one another. People are left to choose between the scare-mongering that one drink while pregnant at your cousin’s wedding will doom your baby and the wholly–false reassurance that drinking what you want at any time during pregnancy is just fine (or the equally widespread nonsensical belief that having wine every night with dinner isn’t ‘really’ drinking). The truth is that alcohol exposure of any type during any trimester of any pregnancy carries a real, but unpredictable, risk to the baby – with the eventual individual outcome neither a positive nor a negative certainty.

* People prefer to dwell on dangers and risks for which they will never be blamed if the outcome is bad. Think, for example, of the sympathy for the innocent victims of airplane crashes (since passive passengers are never the cause of such tragedies). Feelings tend to be much more ambivalent about car crashes (even though the number of victims – and the level of risk – is exponentially higher for ground transport than for planes). That is because the behaviour of drivers is often the cause; even though these sad events are almost always rightly called ‘accidents’. Zika is analogous to the blessedly rare plane wreck, while FASD is analogous to the all-too-common auto accident.

* The lessons of Scotland’s highly successful public health campaign to reduce drink driving have not been learned in relation tofetal alcohol harm. The two-sided message: ‘If you drive, don’t drink – and if you drink, don’t drive’ helped to spark a dramatic cultural shift toward safer, healthier behaviour. The que sera sera attitude toward pregnancy among many Scots remains a cultural barrier. This ambivalence weakens effective avoidance of pregnancy (e.g. improved choices among Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives) while continuing to drink, as well as effective avoidance of alcohol while actively trying to become a parent.

Does Kirsty (the Holyrood baby) have FASD? If her mother did not drink alcohol during any stage of pregnancy, then the answer is no. If she did, then the answer remains temporarily unknown.

The time is long past due for governmental officials at all levels – and for Scotland as a caring society – to finally take robust, meaningful, early action to prevent fetal alcohol harm and to properly support people whose harm was not prevented.

Doing so emphatically does not mean naming, blaming and shaming the people involved; as that is both cruel and ineffective. Virtually no one has ever intentionally sought to harm a baby by drinking alcohol.

The starting point is to understand that it is a near universal desire (if parenthood is an option) to have a safe pregnancy, a healthy baby and a rewarding parenting experience. Preventing FASD is one crucial way to help parents really get what they already most deeply desire – as well as to save a huge amount of money for the public purse and end the even higher human and social costs. That, in turn, requires helping prospective parents deal well with the forces – individual and societal — driving them to drink (when doing so is contrary to their own long term goals).

Fetal alcohol harm is one, but only one, of the major risks to the pregnancy and birth outcomes Scots want for themselves and their babies. The missing piece across our nation is fully preparing for pregnancy and parenthood across the life course. Fathers truly matter (whether positively or negatively and by their presence or their absence). And yet, the key is for girls and women to feel, and be, empowered and well informed about their reproductive options. Being in control of whether to get pregnant at all; with whom; when; and, under the circumstances most likely to lead to the outcomes they want, has not been a strong enough priority across Scotland. Click here for the rest of the article

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.

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