When drink destroys Fetal alcohol leaves nobody untouched
MAYBE you sat next to someone with it at the doctor’s office. Your daughter or son might have a classmate with it. If you’re a foster parent, odds are any child who walks through your door will have it. It is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the umbrella term for the deluge of physical, cognitive and behavioural problems inflicted on a baby when a woman drinks when she is pregnant.
FASD is the leading cause of developmental disabilities in the developed world. It affects more people than Down syndrome and autism combined. In Manitoba alone, an estimated 11,000 people live with it, including 2,000 kids.
And those numbers are painfully conservative estimates.
Dr. Ab Chudley, Manitoba’s top FASD doctor, calls the kids and adults who have been diagnosed with FASD just the “tip of the iceberg.”
Chudley says for every child diagnosed, there are likely two or three more who were exposed to alcohol in utero and have symptoms of central nervous system damage.
The Manitoba government spends $11 million a year preventing and treating FASD.
That’s peanuts compared to the millions spent coping with the mess FASD creates.
As much as 10 per cent of the $10.7-billion provincial budget goes to combating the spin-off effects of FASD — the crime, the child-welfare cases, the schools struggling with learning disabilities and behaviour problems, the related health-care costs.
“It’s an issue, and it’s a long-term issue,” acknowledged Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau. “It affects family services, justice, health, education. It affects everything.”
The truth is, compared to most other provinces, Manitoba leads the pack when it comes to spending on FASD. The province has one of the best diagnostic centres in North America and a menu of new and innovative programs, such as a court project for young offenders with FASD and a new province-wide mentoring program for women at risk of drinking while pregnant.
But everyone agrees those programs catch only a tiny sliver of people with FASD.
Meanwhile, the human and financial costs of FASD are enormous.
FASD is virtually invisible and mired in stigma. If left untreated, FASD condemns people to a profoundly unhappy life of failure.