South Africa fails to tackle its high foetal alcohol syndrome rate.
Although South Africa has the highest foetal alcohol syndrome rate in the world, the government’s efforts to address the problem have been inadequate. And the self-regulatory practices of the alcohol industry have not helped in tackling the root causes of the disease.
Foetal alcohol syndrome is a collection of birth defects involving physical and neuro-developmental impairments. It is caused by alcohol use during pregnancy and results in low intelligence, behavioural disorders, poor social judgement and general difficulty in performing everyday tasks.
South African foetal alcohol syndrome figures are up to 100 times higher than the numbers in other populations traditionally considered at high risk, such as indigenous nations of North America and Australasia.
In the Western and Northern Cape provinces, between 5% and 10% of children entering school have foetal alcohol syndrome. And there are areas in the Western Cape with clusters of higher foetal alcohol syndrome rates than those found in earlier studies.
In Gauteng, 2.5% of school-entering children – or one in 40 – have foetal alcohol syndrome, with some areas showing rates double this estimate.
In real terms, these figures amount to millions of young people affected by the syndrome, growing through to adulthood. This should be a cause for deep concern among South Africa’s decision-makers.
However, government programmes to address foetal alcohol syndrome remain limited. The National Department of Health has identified it as one of ten focal genetic conditions and the Western Cape government lists it as a priority in its Birth Defects service. But efforts to tackle the problem have been left largely to civil society.