Could we fall behind? A look at FASD in Canada

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The 8th International Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is coming to Canada, from March 6-9, at the Westin Bayshore. Though Canada is honoured to host a conference featuring so many global FASD experts from multiple disciplines, our progress in critical action is hindered by the lack of a national strategy.

CanFASD (The Canada Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research Network) is proud to sponsor this international event and to feature our researchers’ important work to help enhance understanding of the relationship between knowledge, research and critical action related to FASD. We are Canada’s first and only comprehensive national FASD research network and the work we’ve pioneered has informed government policy around intervention and prevention of FASD.

Still, our efforts are hindered by fragmented provincial and territorial approaches to FASD. Though many provinces and territories have programs and policies to help support prevention and intervention, Canada itself lacks a national strategy to unite government efforts towards a common goal. In order to be the most effective in our research and treatment for FASD, Canada needs a national-level strategy.

FASD is often an invisible disability. Symptoms vary from person to person and physical characteristics – like the well-known facial features – are actually very rare. Prenatal exposure to alcohol difficulties might not be recognized until children are in school or in their teenage years. Effects of FASD can be physical, mental or behavioural, and difficulties communicating, difficulties learning consequences and difficulties meeting societal expectations are common.

Prenatal alcohol exposure is considered the most common known cause of developmental disability in the western world. FASD prevalence in Canada is difficult to determine but recent studies indicate that 4 per cent of Canadians have this disorder. To put this in perspective, the number of people with FASD is more than autism and all developmental disabilities combined.

Despite Canada under recognizing and underfunding this disorder, we’ve come a long way in the treatment, intervention and prevention of FASD. In the more than 20 years I’ve worked in the field, I’ve seen some of the most cutting-edge research taking place right here at home, and CanFASD has been at the forefront as a collaborative, interdisciplinary research network with researchers and partners across the nation.

We’ve developed the first-ever comprehensive FASD database, providing real-time data from clinics across the country. We’ve released concrete action items to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action 33 and 34, in partnership with our many partners. We’ve supported research, sponsored conferences and informed public policy around FASD.

Yet, despite all our work, stigma and misconceptions around FASD and the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure persist.

Events like the 8th International Conference on FASD help make sure organizations across the globe understand the latest research around FASD. Still, the true benefit of this research cannot be realized without government action.

There needs to be a united front in the prevention, intervention and diagnosis of FASD that is funded appropriately. Inconsistent policies and supports across Canada do a disservice to the people impacted by FASD and their loved ones.

Audrey McFarlane
Executive Director, the Canada Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research Network (CanFASD)

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