There is no safe type or quantity of alcohol for a foetus and the result of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is incurable brain damage, says
A BABY crying because of drug withdrawal symptoms is distressing to see.
A baby struggling to go ‘cold turkey’ suffers from headaches and convulsions, as its tiny body tries to adapt to life without the drug it has become reliant on over the nine months in the womb.
We are all familiar with what are colloquially known as ‘crack babies’.
Now, countries like the US are also facing an opioid abuse epidemic of babies born to mothers addicted to over-the-counter medicines.
Is there another, more dangerous drug lurking in our society and in our homes? The most socially acceptable, legal drug in our society is more dangerous than any illegal drug.
It is alcohol.
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism, in the US, reported that alcohol causes 88,000 deaths per year (in such forms as accidents, violent assault, heart or liver disease, road deaths, suicide, and various types of cancer).
All other illegal drugs combined only cause 30,000 deaths per year.
How does something that we associate with relaxing after a long day at work cause so many deaths? As alcohol is legal, it must surely be safer than illegal street drugs? Not so, according to British scientists, who rated alcohol as three times more harmful than cocaine or tobacco.
Alcohol is ever-present in our society.
Imagine an Irish wedding without alcohol.
We go out to the supermarket, to a restaurant, or to a house party and alcohol will, without a doubt, be present.
We switch on our televisions and see advertisements for alcohol, proclaiming that it will make us the most desirable person at the party.
Drug dealers would surely love to have such opportunities to advertise their products so publicly.
I came across the life-changing damage that alcohol can cause when I moved to South Africa 10 years ago.
I started working with a charity in Cape Town that cares for abandoned and abused children.
The children have learning and behavioural issues that cannot be explained solely by their circumstances.
After many months of research and review of the children’s histories, it became clear that the majority of children in the charity’s care were suffering from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
FASD is permanent and incurable brain damage, caused by exposure to alcohol during pregnancy.
Alcohol is a toxin that goes straight through the placenta and into the foetus’s bloodstream.
The foetus’s liver is one of the last organs to fully develop.
The result is that, whereas the mother’s body may be capable of processing the alcohol, her baby’s body cannot.
Some of the children I began to work with have brains that are one-third smaller than they should have been, due to FASD.
This brain damage manifests itself in aggressive behaviour, learning difficulties, hyperactivity, bad concentration, and bad memories.
The future for these children, if they do not receive help or support, is one of crime, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, unemployment, and, eventually, either prison or death.
In the place I now call home, South Africa, we experience the highest rate of FASD in the world.
Approximately 60,000 children are born in South Africa each year suffering from FASD.
Although it is worse than an epidemic, very little is known about the disability.
I have just returned from a week-long trip to the Eastern Cape province.
The Eastern Cape is one of the poorest and most under-resourced parts of South Africa.
Here, we see the ‘real Africa’ of children walking 1.5 hours to get to school.
One of the towns in the Eastern Cape has the highest rate of FASD in the world: 13% of children suffer from it.
Here, like in many parts of South Africa, women use alcohol as a form of escapism.
Unemployment, domestic violence, rape, and murder are part of everyday life.
Ten years of living in South Africa, daily reading about murder and sexual assault, has desensitised me.
It is the norm. It would, however, be wrong for me to judge these women who drink alcohol during their pregnancies.
Some of them suffer from FASD themselves. Access to rehabilitation facilities for alcohol abuse are few and far between and hope for their children’s futures is often non-existent.
FASD is not something I leave behind in South Africa when I make my annual pilgrimage to Ireland.
In 2017, this very newspaper published the shocking statistic that Ireland has the world’s highest rate of women drinking alcohol while pregnant (60.4% of pregnant women continue to drink).
Why do these women drink, when the risk of harm to their developing foetus is so high? Is it lack of knowledge or a belief that it won’t happen to their baby? We sometimes think that FASD only affects children of alcoholics, but there is no known, safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
A developing foetus doesn’t distinguish between fancy French wine or cheap beer.
To the foetus, all types of alcohol are toxic.
f you want to protect your child fully from this disability, then go without alcohol if you’re pregnant or suspect you could be pregnant.
I sometimes wish I could show women the life sentence imposed by FASD.
I have watched children grow from babies to teenagers and witnessed the challenges they face every day.
Nobody would ever want to inflict FASD on their child. Daily tasks, like getting dressed and concentrating in school, can be challenging for them and these challenges escalate as they struggle to become independent adults. The children I work with are the fortunate ones.
They are surrounded by people who understand their disability and try to support them through it.
Sadly, though, for them it will remain a lifelong disability with no cure. We all have choices about alcohol use.
For many children, however, they live with the consequences of choices made by their mothers during pregnancy. Let’s encourage and support mothers to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy. As we say in South Africa, ‘A pregnant woman never drinks alone’.