There is “no safe amount and no safe time” during pregnancy to drink alcohol, given an estimated 600 babies are born here each year with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), a specialist in public health medicine has warned.
Mary T O’Mahony said pre-natal alcohol exposure can cause “irreversible damage” to the developing fetal brain. Despite the potentially dire consequences, there was “unfortunately a large element of denial about the prevalence of FAS”, she said. Previously, Adrienne Foran, a consultant paediatrician at the Rotunda Hospital, told a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children that the issue of FAS was “the elephant in the room”.
Ireland featured among five countries with the highest prevalence rates of FAS in a review published in The Lancet journal in January. Other countries included South Africa, Italy, Croatia, and Belarus. There are an estimated 40,000 people in Ireland living with FAS.
Dr O’Mahony, who was addressing the AGM of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) in Galway, said the study also found that one in 67 women who consume alcohol during pregnancy give birth to a baby with FAS — yet four in five Irish women expecting their first baby take a drink during pregnancy. Babies born with FAS had visible signs of abnormalities and could be recognised at birth, she said.
However, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) were not readily identified and may not be spotted until preschool or school age.
“There are no distinguishing characteristics for FASD,” said Dr O’Mahony. “It is only as children go through the educational system that they become obvious, things like attention deficit, memory deficit, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, poor problem-solving skills, difficulties with abstract concepts such as maths and poor social skills.”
Dr O’Mahony said FASD had “a huge societal impact”.
“Children with FASD fill our foster care places, adults with FAS fill our jails, and many people are misdiagnosed,” she said.
Other countries ran public campaigns warning of drinking during pregnancy and similar action is required here, she said, as well as screening and interventions.
Dr O’Mahony said that the prevention of pre-natal alcohol exposure required a response from both Government and society.
“We need to bring about a change in social norms so that drinking in pregnancy will be as unacceptable as drink-driving,” she said.
A motion calling on the IMO to encourage doctors to educate and empower women to abstain from alcohol throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding to prevent FAS and FASD was passed at the conference.
The conference continues today, with Health Minister Simon Harris due to attend in the afternoon.