Tens of thousands of children are born each year in America alone with either fetal alcohol syndrome of fetal alcohol effects, and these children will suffer physical, emotional and developmental problems for life. Completely preventable and tragic, fetal alcohol syndrome is the leading cause of mental retardation in America today.
The term fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is an umbrella term describing the facial and physical deformities, the cerebral deficits and the emotional and behavioral legacy of children born to women who drank during pregnancy. A less severe syndrome know as fetal alcohol effects (FAE), affects many thousands more children each year; and because at birth the characteristic facial deformities are not always recognizable, experts estimate that the prevalence rate of FAS and FAE is actually far greater then reported. Between 4000 and 12000 children are born each year with FAS, and FAE effects tens of thousands more.
The disorder plagues the development and potential of children for life, and although the facial characteristics of the disorder may become reduced in severity after puberty, the emotional, cognitive and behavioral deficits actually become more pronounced with adulthood. There is no uniform set of symptoms associated with the disorder, but very often FAS will cause characteristic facial structure deformities, including a smaller than normal head and a flattened mid face, cognitive and developmental delays or retardation and life long behavioral and emotional adaptation issues. Un coordination, impulsivity and speech and hearing impairments also characterize symptoms of the disorder.
A late 90’s study of alcohol consumption during pregnancy reports that almost 20% of women continue to drink some amount of alcohol during pregnancy, heedless of warnings to the contrary; and women with lower incomes and with less prenatal care are far more likely to drink heavily while pregnant.
The Surgeon General recommends complete abstainment from alcohol during pregnancy, as no one is sure at what level alcohol consumption may be safe. If pregnant women drink very heavily, especially during the last trimester, newborn infants may endure dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as tremens, abnormal muscular activity, an inability to sleep and extreme and inconsolable crying.
The societal economic costs of FAS and FAE run into the billions each year, but the individual and life long costs are far more tragic than any increased bill to the State. And all of this devastation is completely and 100% preventable. If a woman does not drink during pregnancy, there is no possibility of FAS or FAE.
What to do?
While all involved despair over the tragedy of FAS, there is little consensus about what proactive steps should be taken to reduce the incidence rate. Some States aim to protect unborn children by enforcing treatment on pregnant women who exhibit signs of substance abuse and others argue that by essentially criminalizing the issue, you deter far more women from treatment than you help.
Another problem is that alcoholic women wishing to curtail their drinking during pregnancy often have a hard time finding a treatment facility capable of admitting a pregnant woman, and also offering needed prenatal care. Every dollar spent towards substance abuse prevention and treatment yields a massive dividend in societal savings, and surely this is also the case with FAS.
If FAS cost’s billions in increased health care, education and eventual incarceration costs each year, perhaps we should spend bit more now in the hopes of reducing the FAS societal bill down the road. More spent on education and prenatal outreach, more spent on subsidized treatment beds for pregnant women wanting to change, and more spent on awareness campaigns…there will always be some who ignore all the warnings and attempts to help, but every person saved would be a huge and celebratory victory.