Fetal injuries due to alcohol - a problem that can be prevented

Published 2020-09-09

Every year, hundreds of thousands of children around the world are born with alcohol-related birth defects. Fetal exposure to alcohol is the most common cause of preventable developmental disorders in the world. New research shows that men's alcohol consumption before pregnancy also plays a role.

Between one and three percent of all children born in Sweden have injuries that are classified as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). In many places, the problems are bigger than that. Not everyone who drinks alcohol during pregnancy has harmed children, but it is known that even small amounts of alcohol can affect the baby.

FASD is a collective term for various symptoms and diagnoses that are due to the fetus being exposed to alcohol. Cognitive impairment, hyperactivity, difficulty concentrating and some physical changes are examples. (Similar symptoms may be due to other causes, not always alcohol.)

To prevent these problems is a responsibility for the whole society. Factual information without shame and guilt is absolutely central, but other measures aimed at keeping alcohol consumption down in general are also necessary to create an environment with a low risk of alcohol-related birth defects.

A research report, written by some of the world's leading alcohol researchers, released earlier this year, states that even men's alcohol consumption before pregnancy can damage the fetus and affect birth weight and health through changes in sperm genome. [1] This may also affect future generations.

In some places in South Africa up to 29 percent of all children are born with FASD [2]. The country is often at the top of lists of prevalence of alcohol-related birth defects, but there is an obvious risk that there is a large underdiagnosis in low- and middle-income countries. If we generally look at sub-Saharan Africa, we know that alcohol consumption is lower overall than in Europe, for example. This is partly due to the fact that a majority of the adult population does not drink alcohol at all. We also know that those who drink often drink a lot.

The IOGT-NTO movement works together with partner organizations in East Africa, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and the Balkans. By working to prevent alcohol problems in low- and middle-income countries, we can reduce not only alcohol-related birth defects, but also poverty, violence against women, and ensure that more children can go to school.

Alcohol-related birth defects are also preventable. Even in low- and middle-income countries, there must be efforts to keep the incidence of FASD to a minimum. It is about factual and correct information for expectant parents, about the training of care staff and other key people who can contribute to spreading knowledge. Both expectant mothers and fathers must be included in this.

The preventive work is also about broad, population-oriented measures. Measures that increase the cost of, reduce the availability of and reduce the marketing of alcohol are necessary to create an environment with a low risk of alcohol-related birth defects.

Do you want to know more about what we do together with our partner organizations? Read more here. You are also welcome to check it out our method and knowledge center, where we collect materials, reports, fact sheets and more for those who want to learn more about how alcohol hinders development and what can be done to prevent this.

[1] Andreasson S, Chikritzhs T, Dangardt F, Holder H, Naimi T, Stockwell T (2020) Alcohol, pregnancy and infant health - a shared responsibility, Alcohol and society 2020. Stockholm: Swedish Nurses' Association, SFAM, SAFF, CERA & IOGT-NTO

[2] Olivier, L., Curfs, LMG, & Viljoen, DL (2016). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: Prevalence rates in South Africa. South African Medical Journal, 106(6), S103–S106. https://doi.org/10.7196/SAMJ.2016.v106i6.11009

Pierre Andersson

Police Adviser, IOGT-NTO movement