No alcohol is safe at any stage of pregnancy


‘I believe we all know someone with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder’

Doctors need to send out a clear and consistent message that there is “no safe amount and no safe time” during pregnancy in which to consume alcohol, the IMO AGM was advised.

Dr. Mary O’Mahony, Specialist in Public Health Medicine at the HSE, told attendees in Galway that consuming alcohol during pregnancy was causing foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), and that Ireland was one of the top five countries with the highest estimated prevalence of alcohol use during pregnancy.

“In Ireland, I believe we all know someone with FASD,” commented Dr. O’Mahony, who proposed a motion last Friday — which was successfully passed — that the IMO encourage doctors to take the necessary steps to educate and empower women to abstain from alcohol throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding, to prevent the occurrence of FAS and FASD.

While she said there were specific characteristics of FAS that could be recognisable at birth, those with FASD were “perfectly normal at birth”, and might only be identified once they entered the educational system.

The traits associated with FASD, she added, included issues such as attention deficits, memory deficits, difficulty with abstract concepts like maths, difficulty recognising the consequences of their actions, poor judgement, or confused social skills.

At an education session on FASD the previous evening (April 20), Dr. O’Mahony said it was estimated that 600 babies were born with FAS in Ireland each year, with an estimated 40,000 people living with the condition in this country. Some 80 per cent of Irish women pregnant for the first time also reported consuming some alcohol in pregnancy.

“Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause a permanent disability called foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The consequences are induced brain damage which is permanent and is associated with physical, mental, educational, social and behavioural difficulties.”

Children born with FAS can show the following: a 50 per cent level of development that is normal at preschool; all can have severe brain dysfunction at age 10; 10 per cent have attention problems at age five; 60 per cent have attention problems at 10 years; yet only 30 per cent have IQ below normal. However, the Director of Public Health with the HSE South stressed that they suffered 100 per cent from severe dysfunction in such areas as language, memory, and activity level.

Addressing the IMO AGM, Dr. O’Mahony said that FASD had a huge societal impact and many children were misdiagnosed. “Children with FASD fill our foster care places, adults with FAS fill our jails and many people are misdiagnosed.”

The public health specialist called for more support for women and more resources in the form of screening and interventions for alcohol and health promotion campaigns to educate women on the consequences of drinking during pregnancy.

“Most people know that drinking alcohol while pregnant can harm the baby, but lots of women still have questions about drinking during pregnancy. The long-term goal is to prevent foetal alcohol spectrum disorder,” she added.

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