ACCORDING to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), an estimated 119 000 children across the globe are born with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) annually.

Worldwide, nearly 10 percent of women drink alcohol during pregnancy.

And approximately 15 per 10 000 people around the world are estimated to have FAS, the most severe form of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

South Africa was widely estimated to have the highest prevalence of FASD at 111,1 per 1 000 children, followed by Croatia at 53,3 of the same population.

On the face of it, children exposed to alcohol during pregnancy potentially risk developing FAS.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is usually characterised by mental, behavioural, learning and physical challenges.

Crucially, not every woman who drinks while pregnant will have a child with FAS.

Dr Svetlana Popova, a senior scientist at CAMH, claimed: “We estimated that one in 67 mothers who drink during pregnancy will deliver a child with FAS.”

Consequently, other factors such as genetics, stress, smoking and nutrition potentially contribute to the risk of developing FASD.

Physiologically, consumed alcohol primarily enters the mother’s blood stream and eventually reaches the developing foetus through the placenta.

Alcohol is biologically broken down more slowly in the developing body of the foetus than in adults.

As a result, there are markedly high blood alcohol levels in the baby’s blood stream. And alcohol harmfully stays longer in the baby’s body.

Undesirably, alcohol naturally interferes with the delivery of basic nutrients and oxygen to the developing foetus.

Development of tissues and organs is predominantly hindered by alcohol.

And in some cases, permanent brain damage is frequently diagnosed.

Sadly, the mother’s dependence and addiction to alcohol similarly cause the foetus to become addicted.

And at birth, the baby’s dependence continues.

But since the alcohol is no longer available, the baby’s nervous system becomes over-stimulated causing symptoms of withdrawal.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms apparently begin within a few hours of life, and usually last up to 18 months.

According to health experts, the more a mother drinks while pregnant, the greater the risk to the unborn baby.

In fact, there is no amount of alcohol that can be safely recommended for a pregnant woman. Any amount of alcohol can probably expose the unborn baby to developing FAS.

Clinically, some children generally experience far greater degree of organ and tissue damage than others.

Tissue and organ damage usually occur during the earliest weeks of pregnancy. Nevertheless, symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome widely vary.

Signs and symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome may include physical defects, intellectual disabilities and problems coping with daily life.

Physical defects

Physically, alcohol consumption during pregnancy distinctively affects the baby’s musculo-skeletal system.

FAS facial features may include small eyes, an exceptionally thin upper lip and a short, “upturned nose”.

Deformities are commonly observed on the joints, limbs and fingers. Slow physical growth, before and after birth can manifestly occur in children with FAS.

In addition, a baby suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome has a visibly small head circumference and reduced brain size.

Heart defects and problems with kidneys and bones are commonly detected in babies with FAS.

Central nervous system

Physiologically, the brain and central nervous are usually affected by the syndrome. Signs and symptoms may include poor co-ordination, intellectual disability, poor memory and rapidly changing moods.

Social and behavioural issues

Socially, children with FAS demonstrably suffer from functioning, coping and interacting with others.

Social disorders commonly include difficulty in school, trouble getting along with others, and poor social skills.

According to research, the life expectancy of people with FAS is considerably lower than the general population.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for foetal alcohol syndrome. But research shows that early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development.

However, the cause of FAS is known and preventable. As such, more attention must be devoted to the prevention of FAS urgently.

And since many pregnancies are usually unplanned, women should totally abstain from taking alcohol during the child-bearing age.

Henceforth, women must stop taking alcohol if they suspect being pregnant, or when trying to become pregnant.

“A mother’s sacrifice is not giving birth. It is nine months without wine.”

Everisto Mapfidze is a registered general nurse who holds a Bsc Honours in Sociology (UZ). For feedback: [email protected]