Mom’s drinking damages unborn babies

Surely that one glass of wine can do no harm when you're pregnant? Don't be so sure. Experts agree that there is no certainty on what levels of alcohol consumption is safe during pregnancy. So it's best to steer clear of it entirely. But why is alcohol dangerous to unborn babies?

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) affects babies of women who drank heavily during pregnancy. These babies are born with specific facial features, an average IQ of 70 and learning difficulties.

FAS in the Cape highest in the world
Something not to brag about is the high incidence of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in the Western Cape – in fact, FAS amongst the coloured community appears to be the highest in the world.

In the Western Cape alone an estimated 5 000 coloured babies are born per year suffering from FAS and the learning handicaps that’s part of this package. The results of a recent study in the Boland shows shocking results.

The study results
About one in twenty (4,8 %) Grade 1 coloured pupils from Boland schools suffer from FAS, a study by the Foundation for Alcohol-Related Research on 1 000 Grade 1 pupils in Wellington has shown. The incidence is highest in the farm schools where one out of eight farm school pupils in the Boland and one out of ten labourers on vegetable farms in Phillippi suffer from FAS. The study, under Prof. Denis Viljoen, geneticist and executive director of the Foundation, was done in association with a team of thirteen from the US Research Institute for Alcohol use and Alcoholism.

The FAS incidence in Western Cape is 40 to 75 times higher than anywhere else in the world. Western countries boast a figure as low as one out of 750, or even one out of 1 500. In other parts of the world, Down Syndrome is being regarded as the most common congenital defect associated with mental retardation; in the Western Cape the incidence of FAS is 30 times higher than that of Down Syndrome. Although the study was done on the coloured community, that does not mean that other communities in the Western Cape are unaffected by FAS.

Symptoms and signs of FAS
A child with FAS is undersized due to growth problems. This affects height, weight and head size. He/she has specific facial features that become most apparent between the ages of three and 10. The features include a small head, flat nose bridge, a flat philtrum above thin upper lips, sometimes a harelip, small eyes with epicantic folds on the inside, a flat midface, and low-set ears. A learning and developmental handicap is an important feature of FAS together with poor coordination and a short memory span. Skeletal deformities and heart defects occur sometimes.

The average IQ of a FAS child is 70 – too low for high school. FAS children have learning disorders, and they are regarded as difficult to educate. They have a serious attention deficit disorder and a lick of insight into what's right and what's wrong. Many therefore end up in trouble with the law. Many develop alcohol or drug problems.

The one and only cause of this misery is alcohol use during pregnancy, with the first three months the real danger period for the unborn baby. Up to 26% of coloured women attending prenatal clinics, drink enough to give birth to a baby with FAS.

In the first three months of a pregnancy, the physical features of the foetus and the beginning of brain development can be affected by the drinking of alcohol. But, the development of the brain continues during pregnancy, so it is not only during the first three months that drinking affects the foetus.

Drinking moms-to-be and FAS
The more times a woman gets drunk or almost drunk, the bigger the risk for permanent brain damage to the foetus. The incidence of FAS in a community mirrors the incidence of alcoholism in a community.

Most FAS babies are born from mothers who consume more than 45 glasses of alcohol per month. The majority of the pregnant mothers in the study drank about six to eight glasses of alcohol per day on a regular basis. It is disturbing that so many pregnant mothers (and others) consume these huge amounts of alcohol. But we do not know the exact amount of alcohol consumption that can cause FAS.

Therefore, a policy of not drinking any alcohol during pregnancy is probably the safest. Drinking smaller amounts daily or having weekend binges are equally dangerous. It is the high level of alcohol in the blood at a given time that causes the damage. The bottom line is simply that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24)

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