One binge drink is one too many
10 November 2006
Binge drinking by young women is on the increase and drinking during pregnancy is common. But the effect of this changing social behaviour on unborn children can be catastrophic, says a Sydney University researcher.
When a baby is exposed to large amounts of alcohol in the womb in early pregnancy it runs the risk of brain, heart, and kidney defects. At school it may suffer from learning and behavioural problems, and it may well have abnormal facial features.
Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is one of the few preventable causes of birth defects in the Western world, yet it is poorly understood by both mothers and health practitioners.
Now a research fellowship from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) will enable Elizabeth Elliott, a Professor in Paediatrics and Child Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Consultant Paediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Westmead, to carry out a detailed investigation into FAS.
Professor Elliott is director of the Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit, which has for 12 years been collecting monthly data from paediatricians from around the country on childhood disorders. "Through the unit, we can monitor the occurrence of disease, see how it's managed, and its short term outcome," said Professor Elliott.
The five-year NHMRC practitioner's fellowship will allow Professor Elliott to extend her research to evaluate the ways that FAS is diagnosed and managed, which will help steer government and educational policy on alcohol use during pregnancy.
"We know that in the community there are increasing rates of binge drinking in young women, and alcohol consumption during pregnancy is common," said Professor Elliott. "Currently we are analysing data from a national survey of women of childbearing age to see what they understand about alcohol and pregnancy, their attitudes towards it, and their practice.
"We know from two recent research surveys of WA health professionals that they are often unaware of the potential harm of alcohol use in pregnancy," said Professor Elliott. "Many didn't know how to adequately diagnose foetal alcohol syndrome, and were concerned about how to manage affected children."
Foetal alcohol syndrome has only appeared in the English literature in the early 1970s and Professor Elliott is currently reviewing its inclusion in the health education curriculum.
"The key issue is that FAS is one of the few preventable causes of birth defects, so it is really important that people know about it and know how to minimise risk," said Professor Elliott.
While it is known that high levels of alcohol consumption during the early stages of pregnancy cause birth defects, the effect of low to moderate drinking in all stages of pregnancy is yet to be adequately studied.
"At the moment the NRMHC guidelines recommend that pregnant women avoid intoxication, but if they do drink it should be less than seven standard drinks per week and no more two standard drinks per day," said Professor Elliott. "However this advice is currently being reviewed to see if there's new evidence that will gives us better guidelines."
Alcohol use during pregnancy is often more prevalent than illicit drug and tobacco use, but attracts comparatively little attention.
Professor Elliott said: "We are developing interactive materials to help professionals better identify and diagnose the disease, and the results from our national survey will help us develop educational programs and materials to increase awareness in the community, in particular among the high risk group and young women at schools and universities."
Contact: Richard North
Phone: 02 9351 3720