Nearly eight in every 1,000 babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome, global study reveals


Fetal alcohol syndrome is more common in the global population than previously thought, a new study has revealed.

The study, conducted at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, found that nearly eight in every 1,000 babies are born with FASD.

That number was considerably higher among certain populations, including low-income communities, children who end up in care, are eventually incarcerated or are in psychiatric care homes.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, is one of few to estimate the total number of children in the world who are born with FASD.

Authors noted that the findings highlight the need for more extensive research and a universal healthcare message to warn against exposure in expectant mothers.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause a wide range of adverse health effects.

The effects of prenatal alcohol exposure can have lifelong implications, so fetal alcohol syndrome disorder is costly for society.

‘Globally, FASD is a prevalent alcohol-related developmental disability that is largely preventable,’ the authors explained.

Researchers at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research in Toronto looked at 24 studies of 1,416 children and youth diagnosed with the disorder. Findings were published in JAMA Pediatrics.

They found that:

  • Nearly eight in 1,000 babies are born with FASD globally
  • Estimated one in 13 pregnant women who consume alcohol while pregnant will have a child with FASD
  • Prevalence ranges from five to 68 times higher in certain populations than in general
  • Of 187 countries analyzed South Africa had the highest prevalence with 111.1 babies in 1,000 born with FASD  

Fetal alcohol syndrome is often associated with alcoholic mothers who drink excessive amounts during pregnancy.

But in many instances mothers – who are only moderate drinkers in the first place – stop consuming alcohol as soon as they find out they are pregnant.

Few people – even doctors – fully understand the symptoms of FASD, but treating it is a round-the-clock occupation.

Most sufferers are first diagnosed with autism, ADHD or bipolar disorder because their behaviors are so similar.

Many – but not all – also have physical symptoms. They have a thin upper lip, smaller eyes, smaller heads, stunted growth, and a damaged central nervous system, which causes issues with learning, memory, attention span, communication, vision, or hearing.

These children are prone to pulling their hair out, breaking furniture, and covering their ears and rocking back and forth in reaction to loud noises.

It means they need incredibly strict routines to prevent violent outbursts.

With little public knowledge of how the disorder manifests itself, there are few resources to integrate children as they enter society. According to one report, 50 percent of individuals with FASD have a history of confinement in a jail, prison, residential drug treatment facility, or psychiatric hospital.

‘The findings highlight the need to establish a universal public health message about the potential harm of prenatal alcohol exposure and a routine screening protocol,’ authors concluded.

Brief interventions should be provided, where appropriate.’

They also noted that there were limitations to the study, particularly the wide range of differences within the studies analyzed, and that they all had different guidelines for diagnosis.

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