Finally, there is hope for progress against birth defects caused by alcohol when pregnant women drink. A campaign to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is beginning to percolate around the state.
There's no doubt about the need for such a campaign.
Current statistics, such as they are, show Alaska has the country's highest rate of fetal alcohol syndrome. More than 20,000 Alaska women of childbearing age describe themselves as heavy drinkers. And most women who have one child with FAS will give birth to more.
People with FAS have damaged brains and bodies that they will never outgrow. FAS is a life sentence.
Changing the public's perception about consuming alcohol during pregnancy is critical, says L. Diane Worley, FAS coordinator for the state. There is no known safe amount a woman can drink without risk to her fetus.
Most women who know this will avoid booze. Those who seemingly can't quit are fighting other demons in addition to alcoholism; for example, research at the University of Washington indicates that such women were physically or sexually abused as children.
Another critical part of the campaign involves making sure that high-risk women are getting appropriate health care, including birth control.
In Alaska, about 65 percent of children with FAS or other alcohol-related birth defects are in foster care or adoptive homes; they require a host of expensive support services that healthy children don't. A baby born with FAS can cost the state and estimated $1.4 million in care throughout life. Children with FAS and fetal alcohol effect place demands on the school system that teachers and the system itself are ill-prepared to bear.
Waging any campaign in Alaska is complicated by the size of the state and the huge disparity of services available in different areas. An important factor of this new effort is training people in different communities -- such as Bethel, Copper Center, Fairbanks, Kenai, Dillingham and Anchorage -- to diagnose FAS and provide services in their hometown.
Over the past few years, powerful Alaskans such as Reps. Fred Dyson and Reggie Joule, Gov. Tony Knowles and Karen Perdue in her role as commissioner of Health and Social Services, brought focus to the issue and enlisted others in the cause. Sen. Ted Stevens has magnified that focus and delivered the money it takes to wage a campaign, $30 million over the next five years.
The legacy of this effort will be more than potential dollars saved. The legacy that counts is not easily tallied; it is children born healthy and prepared to become capable adults. ----
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