Alcohol abuse and pregnancy: Foetal Alcohol syndrome

10 Feb 15

Foetal_Alcohol_Syndrome (FAS)

It’s national Pregnancy Awareness Week in South Africa, which brings our attention to issues around pregnancy, health and society.

Drinking alcohol while pregnant can have devastating, life-long consequences. The mother, child and the wider community are affected as the baby is born with permanent mental and physical defects. These include stunted growth and intellectual disability.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is 100% preventable, but cannot be cured.

South Africa has one of the highest reported rates of  FAS in the world. FAS has been reported to be as high as 12.2% in some areas in South Africa. That’s just over one in 10 born with it. It’s the most common birth defect in South Africa.

Symptoms of FAS

When a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy it is carried through her bloodstream, through the placenta and into the foetal blood. This alcohol affects the development of the foetus.

Some characteristics of FAS may include

  • low birth weight
  • facial abnormalities
  • growth retardation
  • small head size
  • organ dysfunction
  • slow growth and poor coordination
  • brain damage, including behavioural problems and mental retardation

Other birth defects associated with drinking during pregnancy include

  • cleft lip
  • heart and kidney defects
  • hearing and sight impairment
  • central nervous system problems

Many of these symptoms may not become obvious until a child is three or four years old.

How much is too much?

Medical science has not established exactly what amount of alcohol would be safe to drink during pregnancy. Drinking alcohol at any stage during pregnancy can risk the development of the foetus. We thus recommend total abstinence from alcohol for the entire duration of the pregnancy.

Treatment and longer term effects

There is no cure for FAS and treatment is generally focused on managing the resulting lifelong disabilities. Some of these disabilities include:

  • learning difficulties
  • behavioural problems
  • language problems
  • delayed social or motor skills
  • impaired memory
  • attention deficit

These can be managed through therapeutic and medical services. Often examples of this include special needs schooling and specialised home care.

This has a ripple effect on communities and the country, socially and economically.

Some of the possible consequences are:

  • school drop-outs
  • juvenile delinquency
  • mental illness
  • homelessness
  • violence
  • further substance abuse
  • involvement in crime

Hope in the form of targeted programmes

FAS is not particular to any one group of people: It is found in all races, socio economic groups and both rural and urban areas.

What can affect it is education and awareness to prevent it from happening in the first place, and this is where we’re aiming to make an impact.

Two years ago the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR), with the support of SAB, launched its Healthy Mother Healthy Baby Campaign. This campaign for FAS awareness has touched more than 5 000 lives.

Between 2002 and 2012 the epicentre of FAS in South Africa, De Aar, experienced a 30% drop in the FAS rate.

This has been attributed to an intervention programme by FARR. Although this is a remarkable achievement, FAS rates are still too high and the battle is not yet won. We will continue to support FARR in their campaigns against FAS as part of our 2020 vision for a more sociable, responsible world.

Your role

With FAS prevention is the only cure. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Don’t drink while pregnant

It goes without saying that women who are pregnant should make a conscious decision not to drink alcohol.

  1. Support your pregnant partner

Husbands and fathers also have a role to play in supporting their partners in this. Also abstaining is just one way of showing support.

  1. Don’t be afraid to talk about it

We can all play a role in reducing FAS. Simpy by educating and discussing amongst ourselves, and supporting pregnant women in their abstinence from alcohol, you can make a difference.

Have you seen the effects of FAS on your community? Share your experiences in the comments below.

For more on FAS visit