The Rising Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Disorders
Some schools of thought tell pregnant mothers that having a glass or two of wine every now and then during pregnancy is fine, and can actually be healthy for the baby. But how much is too much? A new study has been published that indicates that far more children in the U.S. might be suffering from fetal alcohol disorder than was realized.
Just last week, the JAMA journal published a study that fetal alcohol disorders were just as common, if not more so than Autism. According to the study, an estimated 1.1 to 5 percent of children in the country suffer from an alcohol spectrum disorder, which is five times higher than what was previously estimated.
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What Does Fetal Alcohol Disorder Look Like?
These disorders constitute an array of neurological damage that occurred from exposure to alcohol while in utero. Most people are aware of and have heard of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which is the most severe end of the spectrum.
However, all levels of fetal alcohol disorders, ranging from mild to severe, can cause physical difficulties, as well as cognitive and behavioral disorders.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – the fetus receives a more concentrated dose of alcohol and can prevent nutrition and oxygen flow. Drinking during the first three months if often the biggest contributor to FAS
- Problems with vision and hearing
- Difficulty with memory, attention span, and learning
- Can have difficulties communicating
- Poor Coordination
- Kidney Defects and heart problems
- Mood swings
- Small head, below average height, and weight, small and widely set eyes
The main difference between FAS and other ends of the fetal alcohol disorder spectrum is that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the most severe, and the damage is more likely to be permanent. Other types of FASD’s include :
- Partial fetal alcohol syndrome
- Alcohol-related birth defects
- Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder
Many of these disorders have been proved to be more common as they occur largely in the first few weeks to few months of pregnancy when many women are still unaware that they are pregnant.
There is still a lot of gray area with the occurrence of fetal alcohol syndrome and disorders, as some women have reported light drinking throughout their pregnancy, with no issues at all.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that any woman who is sexually active and is not using birth control should, “not drink alcohol at all” as a safety measure to prevent FASD. This announcement obviously caused some backlash nationwide, and many women came forward with stories of their successful alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
So for now, the cause and onset of these disorders seem to be largely individually based, but if the study proves that cases are rising, there may be more dangerous to drinking during pregnancy than many thought.
The Fetal Alcohol Disorder Study
Over 3,000 children from four schools around the country were involved in the study, along with their mothers. The main goal was to find if there was any indication of a fetal alcohol disorder, and narrow down with the mothers both how much they drank, how early on, and for how long.
There was a lot of second-guessing in this process, as many of the mental aspects of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can be linked to other mental disorders such as autism, ADHD, and just plain old hyper kids. The severity of symptoms also varied, due both to the amount and length of time that the child was potentially exposed to alcohol, as well as any pre-existing genetic patterns they may have.
One major issue that came up, was the stigma that surrounds fetal alcohol syndrome and disorders. Understandably, many mothers are not too keen to hear that they may have permanently damaged their child, either knowingly or by accident.
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This stigma brought forth a major roadblock in the study, which could decrease the accuracy of the resulting data findings. According to Dr. Susan Astley of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnostic and Prevention Network at the University of Washington, the data is more than likely not the whole picture.
Apparently, out of the study, only about 60 percent of the children from the schools were eligible for evaluation, and more than a third of the mothers to those children refused to answer any questions about consuming alcohol during pregnancy.
Another downfall she reported was that, despite the data pool being collected in a diverse area, they were not completed in communities that are considered high poverty or urban.
“If we could generate accurate estimates of FASD, we’d all benefit, but the major limitations in the study design render the results, for the most part, uninterpretable,” Dr. Astley said.
This was why the researchers that published the study left such a high margin, 1.1 – 5 %.
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Following along with the stigma, fetal alcohol disorder and its spectrum are largely undiagnosed, undiscussed, and enigmatic. Many people are aware of the most severe end of the spectrum, but not many people understand that there is other, less apparent diagnosis on the spectrum as well.
“This is equally common… disorder and one that’s completely preventable and one that we are missing,” stated Dr. Christina Chambers, one of the study authors, “If it truly is affecting a substantial proportion of the population… we can provide better services for those kids, and we can do a better job of preventing the disorders, to begin with.”
With the CDC on one side saying “don’t drink at all” and with other women out there who shout, ‘I consumed it, and my child is fine,’ the experts still don’t really know where the line is drawn. It could be a matter of how much someone drank on one day, but no two women are alike, and purposely testing this in a study would be foolish and could cause permanent damage to a fetus.
However, with this new study, it might be just enough to stir up some debate and encourage more women to focus on their drinking habits, both pregnant and not.
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