Birth defects from alcohol use in pregnancy going undiagnosed

There’s been a lot written about the problems associated with increases in binge drinking in Britain. Here’s another harm:

Far more babies may be damaged in the womb as a result of their mother’s drinking habits than was assumed, the British Medical Association warned today as it backed the government’s call for pregnant women and those trying for a baby to give up alcohol completely.

Only babies with full-blown foetal alcohol syndrome tend to be diagnosed and counted by doctors in the UK. But a BMA report published today called for data to be collected on a much wider and sometimes less obvious category of damage, called foetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Around 0.2 per 1,000 UK babies suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome, which impairs the brain, causes abnormal facial features and leads to low birth weight. However, the wider foetal alcohol spectrum disorders were found to affect around 10 per 1,000 babies in Canada, one of the few countries to collect statistics on the latter category.

Babies born with the spectrum of disorders have some but not all of the problems that foetal alcohol syndrome brings. They may suffer from hyperactivity, be unable to concentrate, have a short attention span, or be slow to develop.

The BMA notes that there is still controversy in the UK about the existence even of foetal alcohol syndrome, which may explain, the report says, why data on the spectrum of disorders is not collected.

But, said Dr Nathanson, “it is so important that the discussions need to go on in parallel with getting women into treatment.”

The BMA recognises that there is no evidence that a low level of drinking – one to two units a week – harmed the unborn child. But, said Dr Nathanson, “the fact that we haven’t yet got the evidence doesn’t mean that there isn’t evidence of a link. It may be that it is just very difficult to get.”

It has been shown that alcohol reaches the foetus across the placental barrier, and also that low levels of exposure to alcohol have an effect in animals.

The BMA report, titled Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, says it is very difficult for anybody to know how many units of alcohol they are drinking. Bottles of wine have risen from 8% to 12% proof and measures of wine and spirits vary considerably in pubs and restaurants. The BMA is calling for all bottles of alcohol and pub and restaurant drinks to be labelled with the number of units they contain.

[Hat tip:]