PREVENTING THE PREVENTABLE
New study uses technology to tackle Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
Jasmine Brown with Drs. Andrew Greenshaw and Egon Jonsson
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a medical diagnosis for a range of physical, cognitive, and mental developmental disabilities that can affect a baby who was exposed to alcohol while in the womb.
“Alcohol can cause genetic defects, and a child with these defects does not grow to his or her full potential,” says University of Alberta researcher Dr. Andrew Greenshaw. “It is very difficult to diagnose, but FASD is associated with lots of problems. Kids with FASD find relationships difficult. They can’t follow rules effectively. They typically get into trouble with the justice system, and they can cause harm to themselves and others.”
It is estimated that between 40 and 80 thousand people currently live with FASD in Alberta, and about 700 babies are born each year with it. FASD cannot be cured, only managed.
The health consequences of FASD are enormous for those affected and their families. The economics of managing FASD is also a crippling burden on Alberta’s economy.
“The total cost of FASD in Alberta is approximately 1.2 billion dollars a year,” says Dr. Egon Jonsson, Executive Director and CEO of the Institute of Health Economics (IHE). “The biggest financial burden is on the legal system, specifically the police services since the majority of people with FASD come in conflict with the law. The health system is next, followed by social services and the education system.”
“Over the last two to three decades there have been a number of methods to prevent FASD. The most common have been campaigns to raise awareness,” says Dr. Jonsson. “However there is no evidence of change in behaviour. If anything has changed, it’s that the marketing of alcohol over the last 20-30 years has targeted women, which was not the case before, and research suggests that there is a substantial increase in the number of women drinking during pregnancy.”
A new way to help at-risk mothers
It is important to note that women who struggle with alcohol addiction cannot easily stop drinking despite understanding the potential harm to their baby. Life circumstances such as poverty, stress and other factors can lead to alcohol dependency.
Drs. Greenshaw and Jonsson are leading a unique study to see whether using technology called the SoberLink device could help at-risk pregnant women abstain from alcohol for the duration of their pregnancy and afterwards.
The goal is to have mothers-to-be self-monitor their drinking patterns. The hope is that they could then build on the periods of success where they abstained and perhaps demonstrate that for their loved ones. This sense of accomplishment could become a positive factor when they are most vulnerable to relapse. When combined with the standard care the women are already receiving, this approach should contribute to building knowledge in the health system to prevent FASD in a high risk population.
“We’ve already had women ask if they can keep the device once the study is done, so they can continue monitoring their sobriety afterwards because they want to give up drinking,” says Jasmine Brown, the study’s research coordinator. “They don’t want to relapse after their pregnancy because the support was taken away.”
Impact beyond FASD
If the device proves to be effective as a means to reinforce abstinence it could also be used in other areas of research and community support.
“We’re focusing on FASD prevention among pregnant women. But if it turns out to be an effective way for people with alcohol-use disorder to have a ‘win,’ to gain their community’s confidence and build their own confidence, then this tool may have implications for treating alcohol use disorder more broadly than among pregnant women,” says Dr. Greenshaw.
This study was funded by an Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions PRIHS grant.
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