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Up to 17% UK babies born with drink-related health problems

Friday November 30th, 2018

As many as 17% of babies born in the UK could have health problems that are caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb, researchers claim today.

A study by researchers from the University of Bristol and Cardiff University found that the youngsters had features consistent with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which can cause physical abnormalities such as a smooth philtrum and small eye openings as well as leading to learning and behavioural difficulties.

The findings will reopen the controversy about alcohol in pregnancy and whether there are risks attached to drinking small amounts.

The research team worked with clinicians to assess a wide range of information on mothers' drinking in pregnancy and studied the development of 13,495 children from Bristol's Children of the 90s study and their findings are published in the latest edition of Preventive Medicine.

Lead researcher Dr Cheryl McQuire, researcher in epidemiology and alcohol-related outcomes at the University of Bristol, said: "Our results showed that a significant number of children screened positive for features consistent with FASD. The results are based on a screening tool, which is not the same as a formal diagnosis.

“Nevertheless, the high rates of prenatal alcohol use and FASD-relevant symptoms that we found in our study suggest that FASD is likely to be a significant public health concern in the UK.

"These results are important because without UK estimates of FASD prevalence, awareness will remain low and children, teenagers and adults will continue to find it difficult to seek diagnosis and to access the support they may need.”

Research contributor Dr Raja Mukherjee, who runs a diagnostic clinic for FASD at Surrey and Boarders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, said the results are important because they demonstrate that there are likely to be many individuals who have not been diagnosed with the disorder.

“It shows that it is a disorder that is seemingly hidden in plain sight that we need to pay attention to,” he said.

“Unless we start looking for it we will continue to miss it. If we fail to diagnose it then those affected individuals will continue to be affected by a lack of support and have subsequent impact on them and wider service. These results can be the first step in helping us in the UK to realise it is no longer a condition we can ignore.”

Dr Christopher Steer, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said the findings of the research underline an urgent need for UK-based active FASD surveillance studies and screening children in mid-childhood.

“The UK has one of the highest pregnancy drinking rates in the world, at just over 40%, only exceeded by Ireland, Belarus and Denmark,” he said.

“The figure of 17% is certainly strikingly high, well above previous indirect indications pointing to levels of between 2 and 5%.

“Under current circumstances many cases of FASD remain undiagnosed. Lack of early detection and necessary support increases the risk of long-term disability and secondary difficulties affecting learning, behaviour, health, and indeed in the more severe examples of FASD, life expectancy. FASD remains the most common, and potentially preventable cause of learning and behavioural difficulties in the world.”

Preventive Medicine 30 November 2018

Tags: Child Health | Childbirth and Pregnancy | Drug & Alcohol Abuse | UK News | Women's Health & Gynaecology

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