Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a lifelong, incurable condition caused by prenatal alcohol exposure – not necessarily abuse. To raise awareness about FASD and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), the most severe of these disorders, 9 September was declared International FASD day in 1999 and has since been commemorated around the globe.

In South Africa, the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) has been at the forefront of research, awareness and prevention in this regard and has gained world-wide recognition for its work. However, a lot still needs to be done, says FARR chief executive Leana Olivier.

“There are still many myths around FASD. Some people still believe, for instance, that a woman must be an alcoholic to give birth to a child with FASD. The truth is, however, that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy,” she says.

“There is no known safe amount of alcohol pregnant women can drink without raising the risk of damaging their unborn babies.” Olivier reiterates.
She says a large proportion of children with ADHD-like symptoms – a common behavioral disorder in all communities – could be attributed to alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

FASD is a broad spectrum of abnormal signs and symptoms in children due to mothers drinking when they were pregnant with these children. FAS is a mental disability – the most severe of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. In this case the damage to the unborn child is permanent and cannot be reversed, Olivier explains.

“A child with FAS can suffer from various defects, apart from intellectual deficits. Apart from damage to the eyes, ears and heart, this may also include brain damage, which results in lifelong problems such as learning disabilities, interpersonal relationship problems, developmental disabilities such as fine motor development, coordination, arithmetic and cause and effect reasoning. In addition, most of these children have attention and hyperactivity problems,” she says.

Looking at statistics makes it abundantly clear why International FASD day is essential in raising awareness on the serious issue of FASD and FAS, especially in South Africa – FARR has completed eleven studies in four provinces recording the highest reported FAS rates in the world. In some areas the FAS prevalence rate is as high as 25%. The Department of Health estimates the average FAS prevalence in South Africa at 6%.

“Compared to the next highest rate in the world, namely 1% in the USA, this rate is alarmingly high. The reality is that we have only done research in four provinces to date and therefore do not know the extent of the problem in the other provinces. If all goes well, we will start doing work in the other provinces soon,” says FARR founder Prof. Denis Viljoen.

Currently FARR runs research, awareness and prevention projects in the Western; Northern and Eastern Cape Provinces. As part of these projects community members, health professionals, social workers and educators are trained to raise awareness about and assist in the prevention of FASD in their communities.

Some FARR events on International FASD day include the annual 9km FASD Awareness Walk in De Aar; a 0.9km walk for pregnant women, their families, community members and service providers in Upington; a FASD Awareness Event at the Department of Health Clinic in Wolseley; a variety of Awareness events in the West Coast, Renosterberg area, Bethelsdorp in the Nelson Mandela Bay area and in the Cape Metropolitan area.

The aim of all these events is to raise awareness regarding the dangers of alcohol use during pregnancy and the increase of FASD in South Africa.

“Our theme for this year is ‘No amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy’. This epidemic is 100% preventable. Our plea to pregnant women is therefore not to use alcohol during pregnancy. Rather be safe than sorry,” says Viljoen.

For more information, visit www.farrsa.org.za. Alternatively, connect with them on Facebook.