The Growing Harm from Prenatal Alcohol Exposure
Globally, in countries like Canada and the US, Lithuania as well as South Africa, FASD is a pervasive problem that is largely preventable. More and more stories as well as scientific facts highlight the need to do more for prevention and treatment.
Despite the risks of alcohol use during pregnancy being revealed by science, prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is three times higher than previously believed in Canada. A recent survey suggests up to 3% of the population could be suffering from the disorder in Canada, and 10% of women report alcohol use during pregnancy. In the United States, more than 1 in 9 pregnant women consume alcohol while pregnant.
Science has definitively proven that alcohol passes from mother to fetus through the bloodstream and can impact the development of many systems — primarily the central nervous system, but also sensory and immune systems, among others.
Some children are born with visible physical features. Others suffer from impaired motor and sensory control. A 2010 study out of the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, USA also found that embryonic stem cells exposed to low levels of alcohol led to the abnormal development of parts of the brain responsible for executive function — critical for self-control, organizational skills and goal attainment.
Prenatal exposure to alcohol is the causative factor for FASD. The first warning was issued 45 years ago. But succinct action to prevent FASD has been largely absent. The lack of action in reducing FASD is due to several challenges:
- Consuming alcohol unknowingly during pregnancy
- Stigma on mothers with children diagnosed of FASD
- Physicians suggesting light alcohol consumption during pregnancy is not harmful
- Alcohol being used for women empowerment
Consuming alcohol unknowingly during pregnancy
It’s suspected that alcohol use is most detrimental during the first three to eight weeks of gestation — when cells are quickly dividing to form the baby’s organs, and many women are still unaware they’re pregnant.
Since alcohol is so normalized many women realize too late they had unknowingly been exposing the child to alcohol, and risking FASD. It’s a problem that even can be passed through the generations, as stories told to the National Post show.
Stigma against mothers with children diagnosed with FASD
Affected women report that programs for FASD have improved over the years and recognition of the extent of the problem is also increasing. But the blaming and shaming that often comes with talking openly about using alcohol during pregnancy (deliberately or otherwise) continue to have a adverse effects: in Canada there is no national strategy for research and treatment, and provincial funding is a fraction of that for other brain-based disorders.
The stigma around FASD may have obscured how big a problem it really is, with women consuming alcohol more than ever before.
Physicians suggesting light alcohol consumption during pregnancy is not harmful
A flash survey of Canadian physicians conducted by Postmedia on Figure 1, suggests that doctors may be normalizing this behaviour: A fifth of respondents agreed that — in stark contrast to Health Canada’s official message — occasionally consuming alcohol during pregnancy is safe.
Too many physicians in this country still advise women that it’s okay to consume a little bit of alcohol during pregnancy. But what does it mean to consume a little bit of alcohol? Or is that just an enabling statement that says, ‘Oh I really don’t have to change my lifestyle because I’m pregnant,’” says James Reynolds, professor of biomedical and molecular science at Queen’s University and an expert on FASD, as per National Post.
In the U.S. the CDC states, “[consuming] alcohol while pregnant can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.”
There is no known safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant,” states the CDC, as per U.S. News.
Alcohol being used for women empowerment
Big Alcohol pitches alcohol as a gender equalizer and as empowering women. Historically, women consuming alcohol was frowned upon, at present it has become symbolic of female empowerment.
The creation of the idea that the female body is more important as a vessel for life has resulted in women fighting against it by consuming alcohol as a symbol of ownership of their body and empowerment. The alcohol industry, no doubt, uses this to their advantage fueling the concept and dismissing the alcohol harm, specifically for women.
More than 70% of women in Canada consume alcohol, and about 18% of them are at risk for chronic substance use. The impact alcohol has on women’s health is greater than it is for men. Women metabolize alcohol differently, and are more vulnerable to addiction at lower levels. According to scientific studies, alcohol use increases risk of breast cancer and heart disease.
Worldwide problem: Examples for action to tackle the growing harm
The prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder among children and youth in the general population exceeds 1% in 76 countries, which underscores the need for universal prevention initiatives targeting maternal alcohol consumption, screening protocols, and improved access to diagnostic services, especially in special populations.
As per U.S. News, the CDC suggests, efforts to expand implementation of community-level interventions and universal alcohol screening and brief counseling might decrease the prevalence of alcohol use during pregnancy in the United States.
Lithuania shows a commitment to even stronger protections of the unborn child: the Baltic nation may be taking action to implement a ban which legally prohibits pregnant women from consuming alcohol. This is in response to recent incidents in the country related to intoxicated pregnant women, as per NordAN.
Socially, interventions and programs to dispel the prevailing alcohol norm and myths in societies around the world are crucial to raise awareness of the real harm of alcohol.
It is also vital to recognize that alcohol-related harms — including FASD — do not discriminate, that they affect women of all socioeconomic groups. This understanding is necessary to go beyond blaming and shaming to tracking and treating FASD as well as prevention of FASD.
Funding further research on FASD is also a necessity, to understand the disorder better. To this end the Canada FASD Research Network has launched a new project to fill in some of the gaps in the science of FASD, including why some children exposed to alcohol in utero seem less affected than others.