By Elise Worthington and Stephanie Smail
Health advocates are concerned more children are being born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in Australia because women are getting mixed messages.
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) changed the guidelines on drinking during pregnancy in 2009.
Since then it has recommended pregnant women abstain from drinking alcohol, as there is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
Around 3,000 babies a year are born with FASD, a number that may be rising when it should be falling.
Michael Thorne from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education says the message is still not getting through.
“We know that too many of those health professionals are not aware of what the NHMRC guidelines say,” he said.
NHMRC guidelines on alcohol consumption during pregnancy:
Maternal alcohol consumption can harm the developing foetus or breastfeeding baby.
- For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option.
- For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option.
“We suspect that the numbers are actually going up – we know that from the change in patterns of drinking among women of child-bearing age.”
Anne Russell gave birth to her two children in the 1980s and says she was told there was no harm in drinking alcohol during her pregnancies.
Both her sons have suffered the effects of FASD.
“If I had known when my oldest son was born that alcohol was the problem my younger son wouldn’t have been affected,” she said.
Possible symptoms include distinctive physical disabilities, behavioural problems and brain damage.
Ms Russell says the behavioural effects in her family have been damaging.
“It was only after my young son with full FASD became an adolescent,” she said.
“He started using drugs and alcohol, sex, he just went completely off the rails.”
She expressed dismay that two decades later women are still not being told of the risks.
Research shows 50 per cent of pregnant women drink alcohol before they know they are pregnant and 20 per cent continue to drink after they know they are pregnant.
Some doctors unaware of risks
University of Sydney professor of paediatrics and child health Elizabeth Elliot says doctors should be taught about the risks of alcohol during pregnancy early in their training.
“Patients tell us they’re getting mixed messages,” she said.
“Some doctors will say it will relax you and won’t do any harm, others will say it’s best not to drink during pregnancy.
“Clearly this needs to be incorporated into curriculums.
“We’re all obliged to do more training – colleges should include this in continuing education.”
The former federal government promised $ 20 million for research and prevention of FASD.
It is not yet clear if the Abbott Government will honour that pledge.
Professor Mike Daube from the Public Health Association of Australia says government funding for education should be a priority.
“People don’t like to be told that not drinking in pregnancy is the safest choice, but that’s what the evidence tells us,” he said.
“The Federal Government gets something over $ 7 billion a year in revenue from alcohol tax so $ 20 or $ 30 million a year for FASD would quite literally be a drop in the alcoholic ocean.”