State targets schools, other institutions for FAS prevention

Posted: Monday, November 13, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Where there should be a mouse paw, there's a flipper, with fused bones instead of fingers. Where there should be a mouse eyeball, there's only a pin prick in the skull and no orb.

Stephen Jacquier's high school science students perform Caesarean sections on pregnant lab mice that have been force-fed alcohol. As the students dissect the amniotic sacs, they get a startling view of the effects of booze on the unborn.

''We may also see the brain sticking out of the top of the head,'' Jacquier says. ''You may also see limbs missing.''

Jacquier, an itinerant teacher in the Southwest Region School District, blends science, math, and English with a social issue of relevance to Alaskans: the devastating effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.

''It's something that's practical,'' Jacquier says. ''It's something that matters.''

It matters to no one more than Diane Worley, the state's fetal alcohol syndrome coordinator, who invited Jacquier to talk about his science program at the 2000 FAS Summit last week in Anchorage.

Worley's job is to change Alaskans' attitude toward drinking and pregnancy. Reaching school-age children through teachers such as Jacquier is one of her strategies.

''His project is a perfect example of how we should merge our sex education with our drug prevention classes,'' Worley said.

Worley has a powerful new weapon for her cause. A five-year, $29 million federal grant obtained by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, will send $5.8 million annually to the state for addressing FAS, the leading known cause of mental retardation.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is 100 percent preventable if women abstain from alcohol after conception.

FAS and alcohol-related birth defects -- the damage incurred without facial distortions -- create brain processing problems. The damage shows up in memory and cause-and-effect reasoning. People with FAS often cannot understand time, generalizations or abstract concepts.

Alaska has the highest rate of FAS in the nation. The nation's rate of FAS is .1 to .7 per 1,000 births. Alaska is estimated to be 1 to 1.4 cases per 1,000 births.

Add in the Alaskans with other alcohol-related birth defects, and the number is multiplied by 10, perhaps 14 babies injured for every 100 born, Worley said.

''If any other kind of drug had caused those birth defects, we'd probably be up in arms,'' Worley said.

A 20-member panel convened by the state Department of Health and Social Services discussed how to spend the grant and decided the money should be used fighting FAS through existing systems.

That means training social workers to educate women most likely to give birth to FAS babies; teaching doctors to tell patients that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy; training employment counselors that adults with FAS will need more structure in their jobs than the average applicant; teaching judges that FAS misdemeanor offenders may not have a standard grasp of personal property ownership or the difference between right and wrong.

It also means reaching school children with the message that alcohol and pregnancy don't mix, with something more effective than a lecture and a poster hung on a school wall.

That's where Jacquier comes in.

Jacquier says he teaches the scientific method and lets students draw their conclusions when they see damaged mice pups under a dissecting microscope.

''I don't ask the kids to take it on faith,'' Jacquier says, a doctoral candidate in the Northern Studies Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Jacquier's project begins with animal care. The project design has the protocol approval of the UAF Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. He seeks approval of local elders and traditional councils before beginning in Native communities.

Jacquier's students vary the amount of alcohol given to each mouse, depending on its weight. He says it's the equivalent of one binge during a human pregnancy.

''It doesn't take very much to affect various processes along the way,'' Jacquier says.

Mice have 20-day gestation periods. At Day 9 of a pregnancy, Jacquier's students gently place a feeding tube down a female mouse's mouth and inject a small amount of booze. Unlike humans, the mouse won't drink it voluntarily. Unlike humans, a mouse can't vomit the booze once it reaches its stomach.

Within minutes, the liquor affects a mouse's gross motor skills. It stumbles, repeatedly falls off the edge of a box, allows itself to be turned onto its back, and finally, passes out.

Jacquier picks up the unconscious, spread-eagle mouse in the palm of his hand and makes a point about what can happen to teens at a party.

''Ugly things can happen,'' he tells the students. ''You don't want to be in this condition.''

Nineteen days into the pregnancy, Jacquier humanely kills the mice before students perform the C-sections. If the mouse dam gives birth to deformed pups, she's likely to cannibalize them.

From the dissected mouse comes a chain of perhaps eight amniotic sacs, each with a fetus. The mothers that were force-fed alcohol have baby mice often half the size of healthy aborted fetuses.

The students observe, measure, infer. They see abnormalities and diminished birth weight. They write reports and put on seminars with their conclusions for younger students.

Jacquier says the program makes an impression.

Most students say the experiment is not enough to make them give up drinking alcohol when the opportunity comes along. But most conclude from the mice that they do not want alcohol near a fertilized human egg, Jacquier says.

''They have produced, with their own hands, proof that, 'Yes, it's not just all those adults quacking at us,''' Jacquier says.

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