Ceremony marks FAS Awareness Day

Posted: Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Bells traditionally have been rung to mark all kinds of occasions. At one time, a bell was rung to announce a death. The poet John Donne referred to the practice to punctuate his argument that "no man is an island" and human beings are diminished by the death of another. The 17th century Englishman wrote "... never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

In a fitting gesture, a bell will be rung Thursday at a ceremony marking International Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day to be held at Erik Hansen Scout Park in Kenai. The purpose of the event is to bring awareness to the damage alcohol can do to a developing fetus if consumed during pregnancy.

At 9:09 a.m. on Sept. 9 the ninth minute of the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month the bell will be rung nine times to symbolize the nine months of pregnancy during which alcohol should not be consumed.

Alcohol is a poison if drank during pregnancy, according to Margaret Parsons-Williams, family services director of Frontier Community Services in Soldotna, one of the organizers of the ceremony.

The alcohol interferes with fetal development and causes birth defects, including brain damage, associated with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), Parsons-Williams said.

When diagnosing the syndrome, professionals look for both physical and mental symptoms, she said.

One of the most common signs is facial disfiguration. Individuals with FAS often have a thin upper lip, small eyes and the groove between their nose and mouth is flattened.

Another sign is stunted growth. Infants exposed to alcohol in the womb often don't grow normally and are shorter and weigh less than average for their age.

Damage to the brain can lower IQ and impair speech, memory and the ability to get along socially. Kids and adults with FAS tend to be classified as troublemakers because they have a hard time learning from their mistakes.

"They don't understand cause and affect," said Parsons-Williams. "They don't learn from consequences, so they may repeat (the behavior) and get in trouble again."

Alcohol is more toxic to a developing fetus than hard drugs, Parsons-Williams said.

"Alcohol is even a bigger risk than drugs, such as heroine and crack," she said.

Exposure to alcohol affects some fetuses more severely than others. But any amount of drinking during pregnancy can potentially cause developmental problems, according to Parsons-Williams, who recommends expectant mothers not drink at all.

"It's a crap shoot. If you're drinking any alcohol at all, you're causing risk to your baby," she said.

FAS was given a name in the early 1970s, but probably has been around as long as spirits, according to Deb Evenson, an FAS educator from Homer who will speak at the ceremony Thursday.

Evenson plans to speak on the "hidden history" of the syndrome. She said there are a lot of clues that suggest people have known for a long time that drinking and pregnancy don't go together, including Biblical passages and the writings of Aristotle.

A 400-year-old piece of visual evidence comes from England. The lithograph, etched in the 1600s, was used to try to persuade parliament there was a problem and depicts the children of women known to drink gin excessively. Typical characteristics of fetal alcohol syndrome can be seen in the children's faces, Evenson said.

"We've always known on some level drinking alcohol during pregnancy is harmful," she said.

Today, the consequences of drinking while pregnant have been established. The goal of Thursday's ceremony is to get the word out, Evenson said.

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