|Drinking for two||Aug. 19, 2006|
|Provided by: Sun Media|
|Written by: DR. GIFFORD JONES|
|Birth defects resulting from alcohol misuse are a medical and social tragedy|
Destroying yourself slowly with alcohol has never made any sense. Even worse, destroying an infant physically and mentally before birth is maternal madness. But year after year, alcohol-riddled babies are born suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Alcohol is now known to be the leading preventable cause of mental and physical birth defects in North America. It's an immense medical and social tragedy.
Most people believe that Down syndrome is the most common cause of mental disability at birth. But FAS is twice as common. Health Canada estimates that nine in every 1,000 babies born in this country have some form of FAS and one in three of these babies will suffer from the severe form, with wide-set eyes, thin upper lips, lower body weight and small head circumference.
Dr. Christine Lock is associate professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia and an authority on FAS. She contends it's a myth that only irresponsible, derelict mothers cause this serious birth defect. Rather, children can develop lesser forms of FAS from small amounts of alcohol. Her blunt message, "If we drink in pregnancy, we place our child at risk."
She adds that FAS in its milder form is often an invisible disability that may not be apparent in early years. But later, in school, these children are slower to develop, suffer from poor memory and coordination, have less ability in problem-solving skills or understanding concepts such as time and money and often have behavioural troubles that land them in a court of law.
I have had patients contemplating pregnancy who say, "I don't drink very much, or only when I go to a party. So would a little bit of wine, beer or liquor really be a problem?" Other women have been told that if they abstain from alcohol in the early months of pregnancy, imbibing is safe later on.
This is wishful thinking at any stage of pregnancy. We know that mothers who drink during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when fetal organs are in the early stage of development, give birth to children with the most severe problems. Brain connections do not get properly made when alcohol is present. And during the latter months of pregnancy, complex developments in the brain are still occurring.
So what should women do to prevent this disaster? A legal maxim states that, "Plenty of care never does any mischief." So the quick and only sound answer to patient inquiries is to stop drinking alcohol during the reproductive stage of life when not using birth control.
The reasoning is quite simple. If contraception is not being used, it may be several weeks before a woman realizes she's pregnant. During that time, alcohol could be causing fetal abnormalities. And if Saturday night means binge drinking, that is particularly bad news for the fetus.
Many pregnant women don't realize that when they consume alcohol, the fetus also drinks it. Moreover, there's a huge difference between alcohol in the mother's body and that of the fetus.
Pregnant women have a well-functioning mature liver that helps detoxify alcohol in the blood. A developing fetus does not have this metabolic safeguard. This means that when alcohol crosses the placental barrier, the fetus is poorly equipped to handle it and is subjected to a higher concentration of alcohol for a longer period of time. This could be disaster for the developing brain.
Unfortunately, there will always be women who don't give a tinker's damn about their own body or that of their unborn child. Some guzzle a bottle of liquor a day and have children who begin life with three strikes against them, not to mention the huge expense for society.
If this column awakens one young mother to the problem, and a child is born healthy, it has been well worthwhile.
|MORE COLUMNS BY DR. GIFFORD JONES|