FAS: What everyone should know

Posted: Friday, September 07, 2001

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a collection of mental, physical and behavioral defects caused by a baby's exposure to alcohol before birth.

Sunday will be International Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day. Everyone is asked to ring bells or pause for a moment of reflection at 9:09 a.m. to remember that during the nine months of pregnancy women should abstain from alcohol.

The event is sponsored by FAS World, an international alliance promoting the awareness of FAS and related disorders. The day was first observed in 1999.

The federal and state government are in the early stages of a five-year program to create a statewide system of outreach, education and upgrades of FAS services. On the Kenai Peninsula, the project is run through Frontier Community Services. In December, 2000, Frontier began offering diagnostic clinics looking for fetal alcohol effects.

Margaret Parsons-Williams, FAS coordinator at Frontier, said the whole diagnostic effort is fairly new, and people on the Kenai Peninsula and elsewhere have a long way to go to adequately address the problem.

"So many people don't get it," she said.

In the past, children and adults with alcohol-induced brain damage have been mislabeled and mistreated for secondary characteristics such as conduct disorders or attention deficit disorder. People see a willful, naughty child, rather than a child with brain damage, she said.

"The more I talk about it, the bigger it gets."

In addition to FAS, health and social service professionals talk about a full spectrum of fetal alcohol effects.

Since Frontier began the screening, it has been getting a growing number of inquiries. So far, it has evaluated 59 people during clinics in Soldotna and Homer. Of those, 41 were diagnosed as having some fetal alcohol damage and two of those as having full FAS.

Here are some basics of FAS and related effects:

Fetal alcohol effects are common.

Nationwide each year, about 5,000 babies are born with FAS and about 50,000 with other fetal alcohol effects, which are seldom diagnosed. In Alaska, where there is a high rate of alcohol abuse, about one child in 1,000 has FAS. More children are born with FAS than with muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, HIV and spina bifida combined.

Fetal alcohol effects are the largest cause of mental retardation.

Twice as many children are born with FAS as with Down Syndrome. Often alcohol is suspected as a factor but is not reported.

Fetal alcohol effects cost everyone.

Analysts estimate that extra costs for an FAS child range from $1 million to $5 million over their lifetime. Since most people with FAS end up in state custody one way or the other, the public pays the cost. One federal report estimated that fetal alcohol damage costs U.S. taxpayers $2.1 billion per year.

Fetal alcohol damage costs more than money.

Preliminary studies suggest that fetal alcohol-induced brain damage is a major factor in crime. People with FAS are impulsive and have poor judgment. Experts believe they are more likely than others to act inappropriately, steal, lie, be involved in sex offenses, be abused, have unplanned children they cannot care for and be exploited by "bad influences."

FAS cannot be cured.

Brain damage lasts a lifetime. Although intervention and care may help individuals reach their full potential, brain damage occurring during development can never be reversed.

FAS is completely preventable.

Although other birth defects may be due to genetic predispositions, injuries or hidden environmental toxins, sobriety is a free, 100-percent effective way to prevent fetal alcohol damage.

Fetal alcohol effects are diverse.

People with alcohol damage may have no visible symptoms. Some with brain damage may have normal or above normal intelligence, but have subtle learning or behavioral problems.

FAS is an equal opportunity problem.

Although some ethnic groups have a higher prevalence of FAS, it is a worldwide problem affecting any people that use alcohol.

FAS has no legal disincentive.

In the state of Alaska and most other parts of the nation, no laws prevent pregnant women from drinking enough to harm their children.

Help is available.

On the Kenai Peninsula, anyone can get information and help by contacting Frontier Community Services at 262-6331.

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