Roisin Shortall urges Varadkar to take action on pregnancy drinking

The Government has been accused of doing far too little to tackle alcohol consumption by pregnant women, which causes life-long medical problems for children.

Former junior health minister Roisín Shortall accused current Health Minister Leo Varadkar of treating the matter as “something of no consequence” after he said in a parliamentary question that the Department of Health does not know how many people are affected by Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), nor would he commit resources to improving education and screening in the area.

FASD refers to a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy.

Physical signs include abnormal facial features, small heads, below-average height, low body weight, and problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones.

Behavioural and learning symptoms include poor co-ordination, intellectual disability, vision and hearing problems, attention problems, and poor reasoning and judgment.

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Mr Varadkar said the diagnosis of FASD is “difficult”. He said that while the HSE had said there were 13 newborn discharges with the condition notified to the Hospital In-Patient Enquiry (HIPE) system between 2005-2014, there is no national FASD register and therefore the number of cases is unknown.

He said diagnosis of moderate FASD cases might be made at a later stage within primary care services but such cases were not captured in HIPE data and were not quantifiable.

He said there is currently a senior psychologist in early intervention services who specialises in FASD but that person only provides training to clinical staff in the west and north-west “in so far as resources allow”.

“Any additional resources required to develop screening tools for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome or FASD, associated education programmes, and specialised follow-up services for children with positive diagnosis would have to be considered in the context of emerging priorities, service delivery plans, and budgetary controls,” he said.

Maternity hospitals ask all mothers about alcohol intake at their first antenatal visit and advise them to avoid alcohol during pregnancy as there is no safe minimal intake. If a mother is identified at the antenatal clinic to be drinking in excess, she is referred to the social work department for “support and advice”.

Ms Shortall said that, given the high rate of alcohol consumption and misuse across the population, as well as the growing problem of drinking among young people, drinking while pregnant was becoming a fairly common occurrence.

She said the Steering Group on a National Substance Misuse Strategy had three years ago recommended more work to tackle the issue but that little had been done since then and there was no recognition that it was a serious problem.

Ms Shortall also questioned the reliance on maternity hospitals having to ask a pregnant woman whether she was drinking, saying that a woman was unlikely to disclose that when it could mean a referral to a social worker and the possibility of having her baby taken from her.

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