Ireland has the world’s highest rate of women drinking alcohol while pregnant, even though public health campaigns warn repeatedly of the risk to the baby, writes Claire O'Sullivan, Irish Examiner Reporter.
According to the research, 60.4% of Irish women continue to drink when they are expecting a baby, amounting to six times the global average of one in 10.
The next highest rate of drinking after Ireland was to be found in Belarus, where 46.6% of women admitted drinking.
Denmark came third with 45.8% of pregnant women opting for alcohol. The UK was the fourth worst offender on 41.3%. In fifth place was Russia, where 36.5% of women admitted to drinking.
Health guidelines advise women to avoid alcohol completely while pregnant, as it can cause neurological damage to a baby’s developing brain leading to behavioural, social, learning, and attention difficulties in childhood, adolescence, and in later life.
According to Alcohol Action Ireland, drinking more than three drinks a day increases the risk of miscarriage and more than 12 drinks a week increases the risk of premature birth.
The study, conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, looked at research from 50 countries. It found that one in every 67 women who consumed alcohol during pregnancy would deliver a child with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which amounts to about 119,000 children born with FAS annually worldwide. FAS can affect a child’s facial features and height, as well as their central nervous system.
Study author Dr Svetlana Popova warned that FAS “is only the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the wide spectrum of harm caused by pregnancy drinking.
It “is believed that the prevalence ratio of FAS to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is about one to nine or 10, indicating that FAS is only the tip of the iceberg”, the report concluded.
The most recent research from the Department of Health’s chief medical officer states that: “Given the harmful drinking patterns in Ireland, the propensity to binge drink, there is a substantial risk of neurological damage to the foetus resulting in foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).
Therefore, it is the child’s best interest for a pregnant woman not to drink alcohol during pregnancy.”
The liver is one of the last organs to develop fully in a foetus, meaning unborn babies can’t process alcohol efficiently.
A study of women who attended the Coombe Women’s Hospital found that almost 63% of the 43,318 women surveyed said they drank alcohol during their pregnancy. In contrast, nearly 50% gave up smoking.
The authors fear FAS will rise worldwide in the coming year because alcohol use, binge drinking, and drinking during pregnancy are increasing. They concluded that more effective prevention strategies targeting alcohol use before and during pregnancy and surveillance of FAS are urgently needed.
They also said “appropriate screening for alcohol use in women of childbearing age, in combination with pre-conception health promotion, contraceptive counselling, and referral to substance-abuse programmes, should become routine in primary care settings”.
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