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Sunday June 4th

New study by UNC researchers finds higher percentage of alcohol-related birth disorders

For Zebulon resident Becky Brantley, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders affects pretty much everything her son does on a day-to-day basis.  

Brantley, who adopted a child with full fetal alcohol syndrome, said her son has struggled to come to terms with the depths of his disease.

“Since there is no cure for FASD and there are not a lot of present treatment for diagnosis, the biggest thing that we can do is provide accommodations and modify his environment so that the environment and his abilities are matched,” Brantley said. “He is not over it. And I don’t know that he ever will be over it, because grief comes in ways, and since there is no cure for FASD, the things that were hard are always hard and they will always be hard.”

Close to five percent of children in the United States may be affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, according to a newly-released UNC study published in the journal, "Pediatrics," — a number much higher than the previous estimate of one percent. 

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother consumed alcohol during pregnancy, resulting in physical, behavioral and learning problems in the newborn due to brain damage. 

Previous researchers underestimated the rate because they studied clinical referrals rather than actively searching the general population for cases of the disorder, said Philip May, research professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. 

"We are picking up individuals with full spectrum,” May, who led the study, said. “The majority of them will otherwise never be recognized as having fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.”

The research studied the incidence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders by looking at the samples among first graders enrolled in public and private schools in Sioux Falls, S.D., a representative city. 

May said his team found that women tend to underreport how much they drink when doing maternal interviews, which made it difficult to find out whether a child was exposed to alcohol or not.

Amy Hendricks, project director of the Asheville-based North Carolina Alcohol Prevention Program and MothertoBabyNC Pregnancy Exposure Riskline, said one to three of every 1,000 live births among in the U.S. were estimated to have fetal alcohol syndrome, which is the most severe of any of FASD's. 

Hendricks said one of the reasons the rate is so high is that women consume alcohol for weeks before realizing they were pregnant.

“Over 60 percent of the women in North Carolina who are pregnant didn’t know they were pregnant until at least five weeks or greater, which is huge,” she said.

Hendricks said since the brain and the heart are the first organs to develop, the possible alcohol consumption may influence the developing baby early in the pregnancy.

Hendricks said there is a statewide FASD Collaborative that has parents and a good representation of professionals that are dedicated to addressing FASD within North Carolina, which is creating a state plan that not only addresses the need for preventing alcohol exposed pregnancies, but the need for recognition of this disorder, interventions and services.  

May said there is no safe level of drinking for pregnant women and women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant should not consume alcohol at all.

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