By Helen S. Weinstein
Since Sept. 9, 1999, the ninth day of the ninth month has been designated FASD Awareness Day, a day to remember that every developing baby deserves the gift of nine months free from the toxic effects of alcohol. Although it has been only 13 years since this day was identified, it has been 40 years since researchers coined the term Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) to describe the pattern of disabilities that can result when pregnant women consume alcohol.
Since 1981, the U.S. surgeon general has issued repeated warnings concerning the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Yet here we are in 2012 and people are still debating whether the risk of birth defects is great enough for women to still be advised to abstain from alcohol for nine months in order to have a healthy baby.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) refers to the full range of physical, cognitive and behavioral disabilities that can occur when a pregnant woman drinks alcohol. Although children with FASD may not have all of the physical characteristics of those diagnosed with FASD, the lifelong effects can be just as devastating.
Where once people thought this happened only to babies of women who were alcoholics, we now know that any woman who drinks alcohol during her pregnancy can have a baby affected by FASD. Although it is obvious that not every woman who consumes alcohol during her pregnancy will have a baby with FASD, the risk is real.
While the specific effects of FASD can vary, studies definitively confirm that the part of the body most affected by alcohol is the developing brain, much like suffering a traumatic brain injury before birth. The brain-based challenges may include memory problems, attention deficits, impulsivity and developmental delays. Children born with FASD do not grow out of it - the effects last a lifetime. Research has shown that adults with FASD have an increased risk of experiencing trouble with the law, mental health concerns, homelessness and difficulty obtaining and maintaining employment. Many adults with FASD are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and struggle daily.
The most tragic thing of all may be that FASD is 100 percent preventable if women refrain from consuming alcohol during pregnancy. It should be as simple as saying, "if you are pregnant, don't drink," but in reality it is never simple. If it were, we would not be living in an area where the rate of FASD has been shown to be nearly three times the national average.
Although Sept. 9 is a day set aside to raise awareness of FASD, every day we can help support women, children and families in our community to prevent this most preventable disability.
Helen S. Weinstein is program coordinator for fetal alcohol and drug effects for the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse.