First Australian clinic to exclusively diagnose and treat fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Australia will soon have its first screening and diagnostic service for children with alcohol-related birth defects. The service is being set up by The Children's Hospital at Westmead in Sydney amid concerns that thousands of Australian children are suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). The disorders are triggered in unborn babies exposed to alcohol consumed by their mothers and are the most common, preventable cause of disabilities and brain damage in children.

Health experts say while physical signs of FASD such as smaller skulls are obvious to doctors, many associated neuro-developmental disorders are missed. Elizabeth Elliott, Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the Children's Hospital explained that it was hard to know exactly how many children were affected by FASD because of a lack of research and diagnostic clinics. However she estimates that at least two per cent of all Australian babies are born with FASD each year. She added, “That's likely a significant underestimate because doctors aren't recognising it and aren't asking women about alcohol use in pregnancy. There's a lot of perceptions that making a diagnosis will stigmatise children and their families.”

Prof Elliott said the clinic should be open later this year thanks to a $108,000 grant from the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation. The Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation is funding the clinic along with six other projects targeting FASD as part of a $500,000 national campaign. It will ensure children suspected to have FASD are assessed, diagnosed and referred for treatment. About 30 such clinics operate in the United States and Canada.

“We don't know the size of the problem but we know a lot of women are drinking at high-risk levels and that includes during pregnancy. We have recently done a national survey suggesting 30 per cent of women did drink while they were pregnant and did so at high risk levels of five or more drinks on an average occasion. Many of those women were not aware of the potential harm of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. We have to get the message across that drinking alcohol when you are pregnant can damage the baby,” Prof Elliott said.

The foundation's chief executive Michael Thorn said FASD had been neglected for too long, with many sufferers having problems with learning, poor memory, coordination and communicating. “If we don't do something about this now it will be too late for a generation of children who will be born into a life of disability as a result of their mother's drinking,” he said.

Sue Miers, chairwoman of the National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Related Disorders, said undiagnosed sufferers existed right across the country. “Wherever there is high levels of alcohol consumption, there will be an issue.” She said it was likely that for every FAS sufferer with a physical indicator, a further 8 to 10 would be in the community with permanent neurological issues. “We are wrongly trying to discipline these kids in the normal way. But they don't learn from their mistakes, they don't understand cause and consequence, they learn differently…They often also have sensory disorders and get easily overwhelmed in high sensory environments like classrooms. Then they don't complete school, and have secondary issues such as being involved in the juvenile justice system. About 90 per cent end up with mental health issues, and 50 per cent with drug or alcohol problems,” she explained.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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