With nearly 150 children a year born with fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effect in Alaska, the battle to prevent the affliction is far from over.
In an effort to help stem the tide and raise the awareness of the problem, Alaska first lady Susan Knowles was the guest speaker at Wednesday's Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
"Birth defects related to drinking alcohol are totally preventable," Knowles said. "It sounds like a no-brainer, but we have to get the word out."
Saturday was the second Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day, as proclaimed by her husband, Gov. Tony Knowles.
She said the deleterious effects of FAS have been known since the time of the Old Testament. Quoting Judges 13:7, Knowles said that when a woman is with child, she should "drink no wine or strong drink."
"Despite the many clues, FAS was not defined until 1973," she said.
With an estimated rate of 1 to 1.4 FAS births per thousand in the state, Alaska has the highest rate in the nation, Knowles said.
She said it is estimated that up to two-thirds of all children in special education classes are affected in some way by FAS and FAE.
Despite the bleak numbers, the central Kenai Peninsula is fortunate to have one of six FAS teams in the state, Knowles said.
She introduced three women involved in that team: Laura Lawrence, special education teacher at Sterling Elementary School; Cindie Richman, the early intervention administrator for Frontier Community Services; and Karen Stroh, a coordinator for FCS.
The team has received one grant for training and will soon receive another for programs.
"In my lifetime, I've seen a number of attitude changes. I've seen MADD make 'designated driver' a common phrase and I've seen smoking banned in many places," Knowles said. "I feel the same change is possible with FAS.
"It's just a matter of time before society in general, and women in particular, will find drinking at all during pregnancy completely unacceptable," she added. "This is truly a community problem issue, and it will take a community effort to combat it. It will take all of us."
A woman from the audience asked Knowles how children with FAS and FAE are identified, especially if the mother does not admit she drank while pregnant. Knowles referred the question to Richman, who said current screening standards do not require a mother to admit to drinking to classify a child as FAS or FAE.
Knowles described drinking while pregnant as "child abuse that lasts a lifetime," which prompted another woman to ask if there are any punitive measures taken against mothers of FAS children. Stroh answered that the system does not focus blame that way.
"How many women intentionally do that kind of damage to their children? None," she said. "Much of it is social drinking before they know they are pregnant. No mother wants to intentionally harm her child."
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