Compared to living a life-time with brain damage as a result of having a mother who drank during pregnancy, nine months shouldn't seem like a long time to abstain from alcohol. Yet every year countless women jeopardize the heath of the unborn babies by consuming beer, wine or hard liquor.
"There is no safe time or safe number of drinks. During pregnancy there should be no consumption of alcoholic beverages," said Vickie Tinker, the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) program coordinator at Frontier Community Services.
At 9:09 a.m. today, which is ninth day of the nine month, International Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day officially begins, but locally FAS coordinators decided to hold their event Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center, in conjunction with Central Peninsula Hospital's "recovery rendezvous" in honor of National Recovery Month.
"They had similar themes celebrating recovery within our community, promoting sober activities and abstinence during pregnancy, and emphasizing the importance of prenatal care," Tinker said.
FAS is a collection of mental, physical and behavioral defects caused by a baby's exposure to alcohol while still in the womb, and nationally as many as one in 100 babies are born with some level of brain damage as a result of their mom's drinking during pregnancy.
"It's a leading disability. There are many more cases of FAS than Down Syndrome, autism and spina bifida," she said.
Yet, Tinker said the shame of it is that unlike these other birth defects which may be due to genetic predispositions, injuries or hidden environmental toxins, FAS is completely preventable.
"It's 100 percent preventable," she said.
Also, unlike some of these other defects, many people with fetal alcohol-induced brain damage will not have an impaired appearance.
"Ninety percent of these people look normal, and may have normal or above normal IQ's, but they have an invisible disability called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, which causes learning disabilities, behavior problems and makes life a very big challenge for those who experience it and those who care for them," Tinker said.
She added studies suggest that fetal alcohol-induced brain damage can be a major factor in crime, since people with FAS are impulsive and have poor judgement, which can make them more likely to act inappropriately, lie, steal or be involved in sex offenses.
"Our jails are full of undiagnosed adults that don't know why they keep making poor choices. They don't have criminal minds, but they make bad choices or are exploited by bad influences," she said.
Tinker added that many people erroneously assume that in Alaska FAS is strictly a Native problem, but she said in reality it is not restricted to any one ethic or cultural group.
"Alcohol is a problem in some isolated communities, but it is a misconception that it's a Native problem. Statistics show it is Caucasian, college women, in their early 20s who are the most at risk, but it can happen to anybody.
"No race or group of people is protected. FAS is an equal opportunity destroyer," Tinker said.
So much at stake is the reason FAS education and awareness, provided through events such as Saturday's, are so important to the community.
Abstinence from alcohol may fall on women, but it is also up to the men in their lives, other family members and others in the community to support pregnant mothers, and Tinker said encouraging the path of prevention is a step in the right direction.
"The awareness in our community is much higher than a lot of places, but we still have a long way to go," she said.
For more information on FAS or FASD, call Frontier Community Services at (907) 714-6648.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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