Birth defects are tragic. They are doubly heartbreaking when mothers learn that their own actions have damaged their children for life.
Yet people around the world and in Alaska suffer ill health, deformities, emotional problems and mental retardation now known to be due solely to their mothers' alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The problem is called fetal alcohol syndrome.
Saturday is the second International FAS Awareness Day, set aside to raise public awareness of the problem.
"The really sad thing is this is 100 percent preventable," said Patti Bruce, an associate coordinator with the state of Alaska who works with FAS education and prevention.
Many FAS children become wards of the state, adding a financial burden to society in addition to the personal cost of suffering.
"It is very difficult to put a precise price tag on it, but we figure it costs about $1 million to raise a (FAS) child to adulthood," she said.
The root of the problem is that alcohol has powerful and unpredictable negative effects during critical phases of development in the unborn child.
"Alcohol interferes with the migration of cells and with the development of cells. It is a very powerful drug for the developing fetus," Bruce said.
International FAS Awareness Day began last year when volunteers from eight nations organized a minute of reflection at 9:09 a.m. on Sept. 9 (9-9-99).
This year, two events relating to FAS are planned for the Kenai Peninsula this month, although there will be no formal observances on Saturday itself.
Frontier Community Services, which organizes screening and help for infants and young children, is sponsoring a poster contest for area students ages 10 to 17 to raise public awareness of FAS. First prize is a $100 savings bond. The entry deadline is Sept. 15. For forms or more information call 262-3144.
Alaska's first lady, Susan Knowles, will visit Kenai Wednesday and speak about FAS at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce noon luncheon at Paradisos restaurant. A group called Voices for the Children arranged for her visit.
Christine Hutchison, a member of Voices for the Children, explained that it began as a support group for foster parents about four years ago. More and more children entering foster care have problems such as FAS, because the syndrome and the alcohol that causes it make raising affected children difficult for natural families.
"It evolved toward dealing with the causes," she said.
Hutchison heard Knowles speak in November at the state's third "summit" on FAS.
"I liked what she said."
Voices arranged for the visit because members want to promote awareness in the business community. FAS is an issue for businesses because it affects how people can function in the adult world of work, she said.
"People need to be aware of what it means for older kids," Hutchison said. "It stays with them for a lifetime."
Alaska has a high incidence of alcohol problems, and preliminary results of studies now under way suggest that the rate of FAS here is above average, too, according to information from the state Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
The state has no hard data on the numbers of Alaskans affected but estimates that about one baby out of every thousand born here is impaired by FAS. More will be known soon. Efforts to grapple with the problem are just gearing up.
Alaska is in line to receive a $5.8 million federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for FAS-related programs. The state expects to receive the funds about Oct. 1.
The goal of the grant is to plan and organize a coordinated statewide attack on Alaska's FAS problem, Bruce said.
On Nov. 9, the fourth annual FAS summit will convene in Anchorage to work on the next steps.
One part of the plan already moving forward is the establishment of grassroots "multidisciplinary community teams," including one for the Kenai Peninsula. Cindie Richman, administrator for the early intervention program at Frontier Community Services, is one of six people on that team. She and five others attended training in Seattle in February.
The team got information Friday requesting proposals for details of their plans, she said.
The team plans to expand and involve a variety of community groups in its prevention, diagnosis and service work.
"It will be very comprehensive," Richman said.
"I think we need to make many more people aware."
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