Soaring rates of FASD in Eastern Cape’s Nelson Mandela Bay attributed to high alcohol consumption among pregnant women. Bibi-Aisha of Al Jazeera reports that while the children display typical facial features of a child with FASD their mothers deny that they drank alcohol during pregnancy for fear they would be shamed, blamed, and stigmatised.
Why are rates of the condition, resulting from exposure to alcohol in the womb, so high in South Africa?
Saldanha Bay, South Africa – On a weekday afternoon, the waiting room at Saldanha Clinic is filled mostly with women.
When seven-year-old Michelle Daniels* enters with her mother, a few stare. She has facial features typical of a child with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) – small eyes, flattened cheeks, a short nose and a smooth philtrum above a thin upper lip.
It isn’t uncommon to see children like Michelle in the area. The Foundation For Alcohol Related Research (FARR) recently concluded a three-year study in the Saldanha Bay Municipality, which includes five small seaside towns on South Africa’s scenic West Coast.
It found a Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) – the umbrella term used to describe a spectrum of conditions of which FAS is the most extreme – prevalence rate of 6.42 percent (64 per 1,000) among children in Grade 1.
“This is not an insignificant number,” explains Leana Olivier, the CEO of FARR. “The prevalence rate of FASD in South Africa is several times higher than elsewhere in theworld.”
Education campaigns have made people more aware of the syndrome, which is linked to alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
One of the women who had stared at Michelle in the clinic murmured to her companion. “We never used to think these children looked different. We just said that’s how they were born, that’s how they look. Ya, we can see some of them are slow, but that’s how God made them. Now we know they’re like that because the mothers were drinking.”
Michelle’s mother denies that she drank alcohol during her pregnancies. “I have two sons, they’re 16 and 12. The oldest is a slow learner, and from what the nurses told us, I think he has the syndrome. But I don’t know how. My husband drank when I was pregnant, but not me. This one, she’s fine.”
Leana attributes this tendency towards denial to the social stigma sometimes attached to having a child with FASD. “There’s still a lot of labelling, a lot of blame placed on mothers,” she says.
Two kilometres away, at a clinic in the neighbourhood of Diazville, nurse Suzy Samuels has personal and professional experience of children with FASD. “We know the mothers are heavy drinkers. We work with these children; you can see they aren’t normal, but you can’t just tell the mother that. They don’t want to believe it, and they’ll say they didn’t consume alcohol when they were pregnant.”
Sixteen years ago, Suzy became a foster mother to Anna*. “She looked normal. But when she was three or four I saw something wasn’t right. She became hyperactive, she’d jump from high cupboards, and wasn’t afraid. She wouldn’t understand simple instructions. At school, she was bullied. Once, they put a rope around her neck, but she didn’t say anything. She just let them lead her around.”
Knowing that Anna’s biological mother was an alcoholic helped Suzy to understand the diagnosis. “I knew it was FAS. She doesn’t have the features, but her siblings do.”
Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the FASD Prevention Conversation Project.