Every year approximately 8,500 Minnesota babies are born effected by prenatal alcohol exposure or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). The lifetime cost per individual is $2.9 million dollars. Currently the costs associated with FASD cost Minnesotans $131 million dollars a year to support families and individuals with this disorder. Even that much money is not enough to cover the medical, educational, mental health, residential, and legal costs caused because women drink alcohol while pregnant.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is the leading cause of mental retardation. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is 100 percent preventable. One reason FASD is continuing to be prevalent is because of misinformation about drinking during pregnancy. Many believe that only hard liquor causes FASD, or that one or two drinks is safe, or that it is safe to drink early or late during pregnancy. Some believe only women who are alcoholics have FASD babies. Others believe that FASD babies will outgrow their disability given time. The fact is all types of alcohol cause FASD. Even small amounts cause damage, though the more alcohol a mother consumed the greater the damage. There is no safe time to drink during pregnancy, early or late or while breast feeding, alcohol harms the developing child. Any woman who drinks while pregnant is at risk. Even a woman who has a glass of wine at dinner or a few beers on the weekend risk permanent brain damage in their children.
Alcohol causes more severe birth defects than cigarettes, cocaine, or marijuana. Birth defects include hearing and vision problems, heart problems, kidney and bladder problems, poor coordination and fine motor skills, sensitivity to light, touch or sound, sleeping and eating problems, hyperactivity and attention difficulties, learning difficulties, lack of social skills, and behavior problems which lead to secondary problems of depression, low self esteem, school failure, and trouble with the law.
An estimated 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned. During the time that a woman is unaware of her pregnancy, the baby is most vulnerable. Therefore, the surgeon general recommends that women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or suspect they may be pregnant abstain from drinking alcohol.
As a community we can prevent FASD by supporting women in not drinking during pregnancy. FASD should be included in drug abuse education and sex education. Warnings can be included in home pregnancy kits. Medical professionals can ask about alcohol use for all women of child bearing age and provide information about FASD as routine preventative medicine. Access to alcohol treatment programs can ensured for all women. Information can be presented at points of decision, such as posters in liquor stores and bars; stickers on drink menus in restaurants. Our communities can collaborate to offer free soda to pregnant women at bars, restaurants and public events where alcohol is served. There is the risk of non-pregnant women cheating the establishments out of non-alcoholic drinks. But that is piddly compared to $131 million dollars a year paid through our taxes, both personal and business. We all pay for FASD. We all win when it is prevented.
WENDY OLSON is a children’s mental health professional for Northern Pines Mental Health. She lives in the Nisswa area.