Local NGO pioneers prenatal research as SA battles highest prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome

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With South Africa having the highest prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in the world, the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) is making strides researching prenatal alcohol harm.
With South Africa having the highest prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in the world, the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) is making strides researching prenatal alcohol harm.

South Africa has the highest prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in the world which is more than 14 times the global average. This, according to a study in the South African Medical Journal, reiterates that FASD is a major public health concern in SA that affects the lives of children, families and communities.

From growth deficiency to specific facial features, foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) describes a characteristic pattern of abnormalities associated with alcohol intake during pregnancy. When a woman drinks alcohol while she is pregnant, the alcohol goes to the foetus through her bloodstream and disrupts its normal growth. Children with FAS have problems with development, learning, behaviour and social skills all which can be prohibited through abstaining from alcohol while pregnant – which is often easier said than done.

With the devastating legacy of the Dop-system and many mothers simply not being informed, SA’s staggering FASD figures highlights the need for multidisciplinary and intersectoral interventions to raise awareness about the dangers of prenatal alcohol exposure. One such intersectoral intervention is the long-time partnership between the Foundation of Alcohol Related Research (FARR) and the Discovery Fund.   

FARR is a research-based non-government organisation who also runs preventative educational programmes. It is also the first organisation to conduct studies in prenatal alcohol harm. To date, FARR has successfully conducted 16 studies in South Africa. From monitoring the impact of alcohol to evaluating the psycho-social ills in a community, FARR really embeds themselves in communities. While doing their research, they often hear about other related social issues like domestic violence, poverty and unemployment that can stem from or cause alcohol abuse. For this reason, a lot of their work is about removing blame and responsibility from mothers.

In recent years, FARR has received requests from communities to get training in the prevention and management of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders and received funding from the Discovery Fund to do so. “Having a valued sponsor in the Discovery Fund to walk this path and strengthen our reach, has most certainly contributed to FARR making tremendous strides in our communities,” says Dr. Leana Olivier, CEO of the Foundation of Alcohol Related Research.

According to Dr. Olivier, the funding has enabled FARR to reach hundreds of community members and professional cohorts across the country and especially in communities where awareness about the dangers of alcohol and alcohol exposed pregnancies are still very limited to non-existent. One such success story emerged out of the small community of De Aar in the Northern Cape. After establishing and implementing the Healthy Mother Healthy Baby programme in De Aar for nine years, a 30% reduction in the prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome was recorded in the region in 2018.

“To tackle some of the complex health and wellbeing challenges faced by societies, and particularly in our home market of South Africa, the key to success is uniting with our partners and communities to make a difference,” says Ruth Lewin, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Discovery. “The clear advantage of working in concert with like-minded partners is that we can pool resources and strengthen outcomes”

While there are 13 community projects in the Western Cape and Free State, FARR provides training nationally with the help of Discovery’s funding. “It is amazing to see how the funding enabled us to develop capacity and raise awareness across the country, but it also gave both children and adults access to information that they so desperately need,” says Dr. Olivier.

This post was sponsored by Discovery and produced by BrandStudio24.

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