Shocking Impact of Booze on Babies

Irreversible harm… a scan of the brain of a healthy six-week old (left) next to a scan of the brain of a baby of the same age who is suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome.

Photo: National Drug Research Institute

AUSTRALIA has fallen behind in recognising and diagnosing ”completely preventable” foetal alcohol syndrome and wider spectrum disorders, researchers warn.

The federal government has so far failed to respond more than a year after a monograph – an extensive gathering of available studies – was submitted to the Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, recommending favourable treatments.

There are a growing number of intervention treatments for children born with the illnesses and researchers advocate a renewed effort to help pregnant women who suffer chronic alcohol dependence.

Foetal alcohol syndrome causes serious primary structural brain damage, sometimes shown at birth in facial deformities such as a small head, flat mid-face, underdeveloped jaw and a short nose with a low bridge, but just as often in learning and behavioural problems.

More broadly, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder occurs in up to 1 per cent of live births and includes foetal alcohol syndrome and other central nervous system birth defects attributable to alcohol consumption by the mother. US research suggests sufferers are disproportionately likely to face the juvenile justice system.

Early intervention can help but ”Australia is well behind other countries in recognising or diagnosing” the disorders, says Nyanda McBride, a researcher with the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University.

If no alcohol is consumed during pregnancy – and, some suggest, during preconception and breastfeeding – there is no risk of the ”completely preventable” disorders, Dr McBride said.

Women with chronic alcohol abuse problems needed ”much more treatment and care”, said Lucy Burns, a senior lecturer with the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of NSW.

”We have virtually no treatments available for alcohol dependence in pregnant women,” Dr Burns said.

Although the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines recommend women abstain from alcohol during pregnancy, ”we still don’t know the cut-off point at which alcohol starts to have this problematic effect”.

She said she had no date for the release of the monograph.

Elizabeth Elliott, a paediatrics researcher at Sydney University, said the monograph was submitted ”a long time ago”. The conditions had been under-recognised ”partly because health professionals are unsure about how to make the diagnosis”.

A spokeswoman for Ms Roxon said the Australian Health Ministers Conference would respond later this year. The issues were a ”priority” and the government had funded research for screening and diagnosis.

Source: July 21, 2010

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