A discussion on the devastating impacts of alcohol consumption on a developing fetus
On Wednesday, 23rd March, 2016, the UWI Open Campus in St. Kitts hosted a presentation and discussion entitled ‘Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder’ (FASD), in which past Resident tutor and Head of the UWI Open Campus, Mrs. Olivia Edgecombe-Howell, led a conversationon the abovementioned topic, engaging persons in a riveting discussionon the causes and permanent impacts of this disorder to both individual and society.
In short, FASD refers to several diseases with which a child may be born, if the mother drinks alcohol while she is pregnant. These disesases may affect the child’s physical functioning, as well as their intellectual and higher order functioning (how they think, reason, learn, remember etc). While there has been no definitive answer on the amount of alcohol an expectant mother has to drink before posing a risk to her unborn child, the evidence is clear that the risk for development of FASD is present ONLY if a mother drinks.
The audience was introduced to the broad spectrum of challenges and lifelong problems that can result from FASD including:-
•Fetal Alcohol Syndrome(FAS) which manifests with obvious facial and physical symptoms (such as a small head size) that clearly identify persons afflicted with the direst condition in the Spectrum;
•Alcohol Related Neuro-developmental Disorders (ARND) – a range of conditions relating to neurological impairments; cognitive and intellectual functioning; emotional problems; impaired social functioning etc. Mrs. Howell highlighted the fact that while ARND is not characterized by the obvious physiological symptoms typical of FAS, the impacts can be equally devastating;
•Alcohol Related Birth Defects (ARBD) and;
•Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE) were also mentioned as noteworthy disorders in the Spectrum;
A synopsis of some of the main points discussed is presented here:-
Impact of FASD on Physical and Mental Health:
•A child who may have been exposed to alcohol in utero, and who is diagnosed with FASD, is more likely to present with a variety of physical and mental health issues, such as poor immune functioning. He/she would more likely be at risk of developing respiratory infections and increased risk of seizures, among other things.
• Individuals with FASD have a hard time learning, controlling behavior, remembering learnt behavior, thinking things through, reasoning and understanding the consequences of their actions.
• Children and adults with FASD are more likely to suffer neglect, abuse, domestic violence and stigmatization. They can find themselves living in extremely chaotic situations that could trigger or exacerbate complex psychological and emotional trauma, as well as judicial and legal issues.
• FASD commonly sparks co-occurring mental health issues including conduct disorders, oppositional defiant disorders, anxiety disorders, adjustment disorders, sleep disorders and depression.
Impact of FASD on Society:
• FASD can result in a range of anti-social behavioursthat can affect the rights and needs of countless citizens. Regrettably, for those persons afflicted with FASD, seldom, if ever, are they able to grasp the relationship between their negative actions and the effects of members of the wider society. In sum, an individual with a FASD may be unaware of the lasting consequences of his/her behavior and where he/she has violated the rights, space, privacy and/or trust of another individual.
• There are serious cost implications for managing FASD. By way of example, Mrs. Howell gave indicative figures from a number of developed countries that are opting to commit substantial economic resources to address physical, social, intellectual, cognitive and legal lifelong challenges of the disease. She cited a rough average of Cdn $800,000.00 per individual in Canada. The ability of small island states with limited budgets to afford the financial and other resources for the maintenance of one FASD individual over his/her lifetime is sobering at least, and mind boggling at best.
• Individuals diagnosed with FASD are at high risk for school failure. This situation can bear negatively on the productivity of potentially skilled citizens, and generally on social outputs.
• Obtaining the earliest possible accurate diagnosis is mandatory. This need was emphasized repeatedly throughout the presentation. For instance, during the discussion, it was noted that where there has been no official diagnosis of FASD to guide classroom placement and/or management, and where there have been chronic cognitive and behavioural deficits, students may be labeled ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘un-teachable’ in the regular classroom setting, thus placing him/her on the fast track towards school failure, resulting in possible impacts on communities and society as a whole.
With all of the overwhelming implications for education and education systems; health and the health sectors; judicial and legal systems; parenting and parenting effectiveness training; professional training for law enforcement officers, teachers, health professionals, etc., due attention must be given to budget adjustments and allocations across the board, Mrs. Howell opined. She emphasized however, that on the brighter side, there is hope when considering FASD.
• While FASD is an irreversible condition, it is 100% PREVENTABLE.It does not happen if a pregnant mother (or women considering imminent pregnancy) commit to abstaining from alcohol consumption shortly before and during the full term of pregnancy.
• Furthermore, ongoing research into brain functioning, nutrition as well as new and/or improved strategies and technologies, is resulting in remarkable progress in handling the disease.
• With awareness, education, sensitivity training and responsible actions on everyone’s part, we can indeed change the dire consequences of alcohol consumption on the unborn fetus. Changed perspectives would lead to changed behaviours on the part of mothers, parents and the wider society that would lead to completely preventing FASD from occurring.
• If a person is diagnosed with FASD, the appropriate interventions must be systematically applied to help improve quality of life. Interventions could include transition planning for persons moving from one stage of development to another, right through to adulthood. Accurate diagnosis is mandatory, however, for helpful strategies to be employed. Good referral resources, advocacy and so forth for these individuals, could contribute greatly to the individual living a functional and productive life in society.
We were admonished to recognize that every citizen has a societal responsibility to prevent FASD. which only blights the entire life of an unborn child. By adjusting our deeply entrenched cultural attitudes to alcohol consumption and recognizing the possible harmful impacts on the uterine and continued development of any affected child, it is possible to make great strides in controlling and eventually eradicating FASD wherever it exists in our midst. As responsible citizens, we can all make healthful and helpful choices based on accurate information. We can commit to sharing information with persons who may not have access to resources to help them make wise choices. Finally, each of us has a responsibility to ensure that, as a society, we create an environment in which persons with FASD have the ability to function effectively in our society that is home to all.
Michele de la Coudray-Blake
Director – Counselling
Ministry of Social Development et al.