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Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Statistics on the Rise

Up to 3,000 children are born every year with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Health and community workers across Northland are concerned at the growing number of young people who are being diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). At a forum on ‘FASD and Justice’ held in Whangarei last Friday, attended by more than 120 people, concerns were raised about the suspected number of children that may be affected by their mothers drinking during pregnancy in the region.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a range of physical, cognitive and behavioural impairments caused by alcohol exposure during fetal development.

FASD can ONLY be caused by a mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol is a teratogen that interferes with normal cell growth and function during development. The brain and central nervous system, which continues to grow throughout gestation, is susceptible to the damaging effects of alcohol at any stage of pregnancy.

There is no cure for FASD. It is a lifelong brain impairment that cannot be repaired. However, it is the ‘secondary effects’ of FASD that can impact so significantly on the life of a person with FASD. These might include behaviours such as lack of impulse control, problems understanding the consequences of their actions and distractibility and hyperactivity.

In New Zealand, it is estimated that between 600 and 3,000 children are born every year with FASD. According to Ministry of Health figures, one in four mothers continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy.

Northland DHB Health Promotion advisor Dave Hookway says: “It is important for women to understand that there is no safe amount, nor time to drink alcohol during pregnancy. Women who do drink while pregnant, put their unborn child at risk of physical, mental, behavioral and learning disabilities with lifelong effects.”

According to guest speaker, West Australian Judge Catherine Crawford, “Children adversely affected by permanent neurodisability, resulting from alcohol exposure during pregnancy, are at an increased risk of committing crime or being a victim of crime. Such outcomes are doomed to be repeated when there is systematic failure to identify and appropriately accommodate their disability into adulthood.”

The Judge is visiting New Zealand as part of a Churchill Fellowship to investigate how young people with FASD are accommodated within various judicial systems. The recent Privy Council decision to quash the 20-year murder conviction of Mr Teina Pora, recently diagnosed with FASD, provides a timely reminder of how important it is to get the right assessment and treatment and illustrates the devastation that can arise from getting that wrong.

Youth with FASD are 19 times more likely to get in trouble with the law than those in the general population and the prevalence of young people with FASD in foster care is 10 times that of the general population. International research has shown that as adults with FASD, 90 per cent had diagnosed mental health problems, 80 per cent of adults were dependent for their daily needs and 80 per cent had employment problems.

During the Forum, Judge Crawford shared her observation that from having spent a day in the Whangarei Youth Court, six of the nineteen young people that day had already been diagnosed with FASD.

Mr Hookway says it is astounding that only five years ago, the Ministry of Health documented just five cases of FASD diagnosed in Northland.

“Over the past couple of years, Northland has been developing its diagnostic and assessment capability, working with young people referred from throughout the region. As a result, we are starting to open our eyes to the problems facing many of these young people and their families.”

As a result of the Forum, staff from a range of organisations are looking to collaborate more closely in responding to the needs of young people and their whanau throughout Northland.

The good news is that FASD is totally preventable by mothers avoiding drinking alcohol during pregnancy. While there are occasionally conflicting messages about the safety of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, the Ministry of Health maintains that there is no safe amount of alcohol that may be consumed during pregnancy. Mr Hookway reminds pregnant omen that it is never too late to stop drinking and encourages them to phone the free

Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800-787-797 if they are worried about their drinking.


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