Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can damage the foetus as it develops, leading to a characteristic pattern of malformations which is identified as the FAS.
The FAS is not an “all-or-none phenomenon”. There is a spectrum of severity from the full blown syndrome to no defects at all. The higher the amount of alcohol consumed, the greater the degree of malformation. The safe limit for alcohol intake during pregnancy is not known.
While most cases of FAS occur in the Western Cape, Health-e reports that it is increasingly surfacing in the suburbs of Johannesburg as well.
Point in case: Asanda from Gauteng
At 15 years old, Asanda* towers over her Grade 3 classmates, most of whom are about five years younger than the East Rand teen.
Asanda was born with FAS, an irreversible condition that results in growth problems and brain damage, and can also cause heart and kidney defects.
As a result of her FAS, Asanda has learning difficulties that have held her back in school.
She also bears many of the distinctive facial features shared by children with FAS such as wide-set eyes, thin upper lips and flattish faces.
Image: Children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) may have distinct facial features. Credit: National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
FAS is one of the few inheritances Asanda’s mother left her before she passed away, leaving her in the care of her aunt, Thandiwe Mathabela.
“Her late mom used to drink very heavily during her pregnancy,” said Mathabela, who adds that her niece has trouble concentrating on tasks and is slow to learn new things. “Asanda is just different from other kids.”
Numerous studies in South Africa have found that as many as 10 percent of children surveyed in communities in the Northern Cape as well as in isolated Western Cape towns may be living with FAS.
While media attention around FAS has focused on high prevalence rates in the Capes, the Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch cites previous research showing prevalence rates of almost four percent among children surveyed in areas of Johannesburg such as Soweto, Lenasia and Westbury.
Image: A child's brain that's not been exposed to alcohol, and one that has been. From Children's Research Triangle, Chicago, IL, USA.
After discovering that her adopted daughter Tisha was born with FAS, Vivien Lourens started the FAS Information Centre. Lourens said she believes that mothers need more education to prevent FAS.
“Education and awareness programmes in schools and in communities must be available,” she said. “The health workers and social workers should be well informed so that they can tell mothers-to-be of the dangers.”
*Name withheld to protect child’s identity