FASD Prevalence rates rise but will awareness help it decline?

20 May 2015
Cape Times
[Cape Town, South Africa]
Lisa Isaacs lisa.isaacs@inl.co.za
Foetal alcohol syndrome ‘to decline’

While the prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) continues to rise, experts have predicted forthcoming declines as a result of ongoing awareness and intervention drives.

A study, conducted in 2013 by Stellenbosch University and funded by the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism ( NIAAA) in the Wellington community, showed that the overall rates of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) – various permanent birth defects caused by a mother’s alcohol consumption, with the extreme being FAS – was between 13.6 and 20.9 percent, ranking among the highest in the world.

“The data currently indicates an increase in the prevalence of FAS in regions where Stellenbosch University and the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) are studying this,” said one of the study’s contributors, Charles Parry from the SAMRC.

“As a result of intervention-oriented research funded by NIAAA and carried out by a multiskilled team from among other places the University of North Carolina, the University of New Mexico, Stellenbosch University and the SAMRC, we are expecting to show declines in FASD prevalence rates over time.”

He said this was due to multifaceted interventions aimed not only at mothers at risk of having a child with FASD, but also their partners and the broader community.

The 2013 report detailed findings of tests involving 747 Grade 1 pupils.

The overall rate of FASD was between 13.6 and 20.9 percent, with FAS prevalence between 5.93 and 9.1 percent.

Partial foetal alcohol syndrome was from 4.5 to 6.96 percent and alcoholrelated neurodevelopmental disorder was between 3.05 and 4.68 percent.

Parry said previously FAS rates in the Wellington community had increased from 4.6 percent in 1997 to 7.5 percent in 1999, then 8.9 percent in 2002 and 9.1 percent in 2008/09.

“The increase between 2002 and 2008/09 is, however, minimal (from 8.9 to 9.1), so I would say that it has started to stabilise,” Parry said.

Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) chief executive Leana Olivier said: “It is disappointing that pregnant women continue to use alcohol.”

A 2014 FARR study on FAS showed a prevalence rate of 6 percent in Kimberley and a 2013 study showed a 9.6 percent prevalence rate in the Witzenberg subdistrict. Data analysis is being done in the Vredenburg/Saldanha area, with a study currently being conducted in Port Elizabeth.

Olivier said that FAS is the most common preventable cause of mental retardation. In the US, an FAS prevalence between 1 and 3 percent had been recorded, and in France and Italy 3.5 percent.

Olivier said in South Africa, the most severe FAS affected about 3 million people, while FASD, including other forms of birth defects, impacted as many as 8 million.

Common causes included high levels of alcohol abuse in communities and peer pressure, binge drinking during pregnancy and poor family planning practices.

Francis Grobbelaar of FASfacts, an NGO that educates on the effects of alcohol during pregnancy, said: “People need to take this warning seriously. The effect on an unborn baby’s brain is enormous.”

He said it was also important that young mothers were given the support to continue to abstain from alcohol after giving birth.