Canada’s hidden issue with fetal alcohol syndrome

A recent article published in the National Post examines the prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in Canada, concluding that the existing underlying drinking problem among women needs to be addressed.

FASD is an general term used to describe a range of effects which can result from drinking alcohol during pregnancy, and can have lifelong effects. According to a report released by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) last year, cases of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are up to 3 times higher in the GTA than predicted. Dr. Svetlana Popova, Senior Scientist at the CAMH Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, FASD is a leading cause of developmental delays observed in children in Canada, who often require lifelong assistance for their health, education and social service needs.

The data for the report were collected from 40 schools in the GTA with 2,555 students examined. It was the first study of its kind in Canada, and was part of a larger international research initiative for the World Health Organization (WHO). The researchers expected to find 1% of students affected by FASD, but in fact, the results revealed between 2-3% affected students. “The negative effects of alcohol consumption on the fetus likely occurred before the mothers knew they were pregnant,” said Dr. Popova.

In his interview with the National Post, James Reynolds, professor of biomedical and molecular science at Queen’s University and an expert on FASD, said that uncertainty among medical professionals regarding the quantity of alcohol which puts the fetus at risk contributes to the problem.

“Too many physicians in this country still advise women that it’s okay to drink a little bit during pregnancy,” he said. “But what does it mean to drink a little bit? Or is that just an enabling statement that says, ‘Oh I really don’t have to change my lifestyle because I’m pregnant.’”

James Reynolds, Queen’s University professor, in National Post interview

Currently, it is estimated that over 70% of women in Canada consume alcohol, and about 18% of women being at risk for chronic substance use. In addition, the risk of negative effects of alcohol on women’s health is significantly larger than for men. Women are also more vulnerable to addiction to alcohol than men, with alcohol consumption significantly increasing risk of breast cancer and heart disease among women.

A new project initiated by The Canada FASD Research Network is aimed to uncover mechanisms and risk factors behind the disorder, as well as to determine why some children have a higher risk of developing FASD when exposed to alcohol in utero.

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