It’s been 45 years since researchers revealed the risks of drinking during pregnancy. But as Vanessa Hrvatin reports, rates of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder are three times higher than previously believed — just as more women are drinking, and drinking more, than ever before. In the first of a three-part series, Postmedia’s Michelle Lang Fellow explores the challenges of eradicating one of the most common — preventable — developmental disorders and what’s at stake if we fail.
Programs for FASD have improved since her daughter was born, says Knowlton. But the blaming and shaming that often come with talking openly about drinking during pregnancy (wittingly or otherwise) have continued to have a profound impact: there is no national strategy for research and treatment, and provincial funding is a fraction of that for other brain-based disorders.
Both birth mothers and adoptive parents who spoke to Postmedia about living with FASD — more than 50 across the country — talked about marriages falling apart, families pulling away, losing friends, losing jobs.
Meanwhile, the stigma around FASD may have obscured how big a problem it really is, with women drinking more than ever before.
The first large-scale study on FASD in Canada — a survey of more than 2,500 seven- to nine-year-olds in the Greater Toronto Area released last spring — suggests up to three per cent of the general population could have the disorder.
That’s triple previously reported rates, and means that FASD could affect more Canadians than autism and cerebral palsy combined.
In her last annual report, tellingly released just after the legalization of cannabis, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, warned that “because of its social acceptance, we have lost sight of the fact that continued high rates of problematic alcohol consumption are leading to a wide-range of harms.”
Accidents like Knowlton’s are one concern: In the most recent national survey from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, an estimated 61 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 50 reported an unplanned pregnancy. But drinking has also become a symbol of empowerment for women — including, for some, during pregnancy.
A flash survey of Canadian physicians conducted by Postmedia on Figure 1, an online medical community, suggests that doctors may be normalizing this behaviour: A fifth of respondents agreed that — in stark contrast to Health Canada’s official message — the occasional drink during pregnancy is safe.
All of which raises urgent questions: We’ve known for more than 45 years that drinking during pregnancy is harmful — more harmful to a fetus than cannabis, crack or cocaine. Why haven’t we succeeded in eradicating FASD? And what needs to change if we can’t?
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