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What Are Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders?

Fetal Alcohol Disorders Are as "Equally Common" as Autism in US Children, Study Suggests

More children in the United States might suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders than previously thought, according to a new study published in the JAMA journal on Feb. 6. Researchers selected 6,639 first-graders in four regions of the United States and interviewed their mothers between 2010 and 2016. Based on their findings, they estimate fetal alcohol disorders affect 1.1 to five percent of children in the country, which is five times more than previously thought. For comparison, about 1.5 percent of children, or one in 68, are diagnosed with autism.

"This is an equally common, or more common, disorder and one that's completely preventable and one that we are missing," Christina Chambers, one of the study authors, told The New York Times. "If it truly is affecting a substantial proportion of the population, then we can do something about it. We can provide better services for those kids, and we can do a better job of preventing the disorders to begin with."

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders is a term used to describe four diagnoses that can occur when a baby's mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. The four are fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD), and neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE), according to the Centers for Disease Control.

  • FAS is at the end of the FASD spectrum because it's the most extreme outcome when drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Children with it usually have abnormal facial features, issues with their central nervous system, and growth problems. They can also have problems with memory, attention span, vision, hearing, communication, and learning.
  • ARND can affect behavior, and children with ARND usually have intellectual disabilities and difficulties with attention, judgment, impulse control, math, and memory.
  • ARBD usually causes problems with kidneys, bones, hearing, and hearts.
  • ND-PAE can cause children to have issues in three different areas: behavior, day-to-day living, and thinking and memory.

The authors of the study, which was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, have admitted there were limitations because only 60 percent of the eligible families participated and more than a third of the children's mothers did not answer questions about drinking during pregnancy. Of the children who were evaluated, 222 had a fetal alcohol disorder and all but two had not been diagnosed.

Experts have released more enhanced warnings about drinking during pregnancy. In 2016, the CDC recommended sexually active women who are not on birth control shouldn't drink alcohol at all. Dr. Svetlana Popova, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's Institute for Mental Health Policy Research in Toronto, put it perfectly when she spoke to The New York Times: "Alcohol can damage every system of the body. We have to scream about this problem to the world."

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