Voices of the Peninsula: Becoming more aware

It takes a community to prevent fetal alcohol disorders

Posted: Thursday, September 08, 2005

Since 1973, increasing evidence shows alcohol in pregnancy impedes fetal brain development, affecting intelligence, learning skills and behavior.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) encompasses the wide range of physical, mental and behavioral effects that can occur when a baby is exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. These diagnoses include FAS, partial FAS and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder.

At least one child is born with FASD every day. It affects more than nine in every 1,000 babies. FASD is a leading cause of lifelong disability (mental retardation) in children.

In the past, our message sometimes implied that preventing FASD rested solely on the pregnant woman's shoulders. There is a growing understanding that the issues of drinking and parenting are far more complex.

FASD is preventable. Women who are planning to conceive should not drink alcohol. Yet, many women do not know they are pregnant until two to 10 weeks after conception, and it is estimated that 50 to 75 percent of pregnancies are unplanned.

A man can support his partner by not drinking during her pregnancy and by not wanting or asking her to drink with him. It is never too late in pregnancy to stop drinking alcohol.

The most important concern regarding affected children is their altered brain function and their resulting inability to cope with day-to-day tasks. They also show other traits, such as being easily overstimulated, impulsive and unresponsive to verbal cautions.

Some individuals do not look disabled but still have lifelong problems with learning new behaviors, finding the language to express themselves, paying attention, understanding what is being said, immaturity, poor social skills, trouble remembering daily tasks or staying organized.

Some researchers estimate each individual with FASD costs the taxpayer approximately $2 million a year in his or her lifetime, for health problems, special education, psychotherapy and counseling, welfare, crime and the criminal justice system. The human suffering caused by FASD is unnecessary.

Warning labels and posters increase awareness and change short-term behavior among low-risk women. Community initiatives increase awareness generally, reducing consumption for pregnant women, and promoting referrals.

With early diagnosis and appropriate intervention, children with FASD can do better and may avoid troubling and tragic outcomes in adolescence and adulthood.

Pregnant women are part of the community. It is the responsibility of the community to ensure its members are educated about FASD, to take the action necessary to reduce the incidence of FASD and to provide appropriate care for those who have the disorder.

On Sept. 9, the ninth day of the ninth month, bells around the world will mark the "Magic Minute" at 9:09 a.m. for the FAS Bell Concordance. The first International Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day was held Sept. 9, 1999.

We are asking you to become involved in this event by joining a ceremony in Kenai at the Erik Hansen Scout Park on the bluff in Old Town Kenai on Friday, where we remember those millions of people around the world who are living with fetal alcohol disorders. The ceremony begins at 8:50 a.m. with the Heartbeat of Mother Earth Drummers, a moment of silence and the ringing of the bell at 9:09 a.m., special music, and words of wisdom and hope from a few experts in the field of FASD.

The bell reminds us of the innocence of children. As well, bells are historically associated with warnings, alarms, marking important moments and simply pealing for the joy of connecting with the community. If there are no bells available, choose other musical instruments — drums, cymbals, wind chimes, etc. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Awareness Day is all of these things.

Vickie Tinker is the coordinator of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Program with Frontier Community Services in Soldotna.

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