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National Birth Defects Prevention Month: Spotlight on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

January 11, 2010
 
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Babies born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) face a lifetime of challenges, including physical, mental, behavioral and learning disabilities. But what makes this birth defect particularly tragic is that it's entirely preventable. 

FASD, which is caused by alcohol use during pregnancy, affects more children than autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida and sudden infant death syndrome combined. FASD is the leading cause of preventable birth defects, developmental delays and mental disabilities among children, according to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

FASD, which includes a range of conditions associated with alcohol use during pregnancy, can affect anyone regardless of ethnicity, income or educational level. It is widely believed that up to 80 percent of Los Angeles County's foster care population could be affected by FASD. The most severe condition is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which is characterized by abnormal facial features, growth deficiencies and brain damage.

The disorders take an enormous financial toll on affected families and society as a whole since those afflicted are vulnerable to substance abuse, mental illness and criminal behavior.  The costs to the nation for FAS alone is about $6 billion annually and the lifetime cost for an individual with FAS is about $2 million.

"Any woman is at risk of having a child with FASD if she drinks alcohol while pregnant," said to Margaret Lynn Yonekura, MD, executive director of the First 5 LA-funded LA Best Babies Network (LABBN). "Because women often don't know they are pregnant in the first trimester, it is an especially vulnerable time." The Network is dedicated to improving pregnancy and birth outcomes and oversees First 5 LA's Healthy Births Initiative to ensure that quality perinatal care and support are available throughout the county.

Dr. Yonekura attributes FASD to several factors, including "a lack of knowledge about the impact of alcohol during pregnancy, over 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, and more women, particularly teens, are drinking alcohol."  She cites a 2007 report which found that excessive drinking is on the rise, with 11.2 percent of women in L.A. County participating in binge drinking (defined as four or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion). Another study on women's health found that 11 percent of women in L.A. County drank alcohol while pregnant.   

LABBN strives to prevent alcohol-exposed pregnancies through its Best Babies Collaboratives, which are comprised of 40-plus agencies in communities throughout L.A. County. Through case managers and outreach efforts, the program offers at-risk women information and resources on healthy pregnancies and stresses the importance of avoiding alcohol. 

Additional FASD prevention programs, as well as treatment for women, include:

  • California Department of Health's BabyCal, a statewide education and outreach program to encourage women to seek early prenatal care, 800-222-9999, click here for the Web site.
  • California Health and Welfare Agency's Office of Perinatal Substance Abuse, which oversees a statewide network of nearly 300 perinatal alcohol and drug treatment programs, 916-323-4445, click here for the Web site.

For additional information about FASD, visit the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome's Web site, www.nofas.org, or its California affiliate's site, www.calfas.org.

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