The consequences of drinking alcohol during pregnancy The consequences of drinking alcohol during pregnancy

The consequences of drinking alcohol during pregnancy

Before 23 June, 2017 Isabel Vallejo


People always talk about how drinking alcohol during pregnancy is dangerous. But little is known about its actual effects on the baby.

The following are a few excerpts from an interview published by the World Health Organization (WHO) with Svetlana Popova, a scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who is leading a study on the epidemiology of consuming alcohol during pregnancy and its effects on the child.

What is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and how much do we know about it today?

“Alcohol is poisonous to the developing fetus throughout the entire nine months of gestation. When a mother-to-be consumes alcohol, it goes directly to the fetus through her blood stream. These children may be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which is associated with a wide range of physical, behavioral and learning problems including growth impairments, facial abnormalities, problems with brain function and developmental delays. Recently our team identified more than 400 conditions that co-occur in individuals with FASD.”

What were the key findings?

“We estimated that one out of 67 women who consume alcohol during pregnancy will deliver a child with FAS, which translates to about 119,000 such children born globally every year. We knew before the study that not every woman who drinks alcohol during pregnancy will deliver a child with FAS, because women drink different amounts and every mother and every fetus has a different ability to metabolize alcohol, and there are many other factors that may influence their vulnerability.”

How common is FASD compared with other birth defects?

“A: We recently found that the prevalence of FASD exceeds 1% in many countries. This suggests that in some countries the prevalence of FASD may be higher than the prevalence of some common – and more generally known – birth defects such as anencephaly, Down syndrome, spina bifida and trisomy 18.”

If this is such a common condition, why is there so little awareness of it?

“Even for the health sector, FASD is a relatively new condition (…) We estimate that globally, one in 10 women consumes alcohol during pregnancy and 20% of these women binge drink, which means they consume four or more alcoholic drinks per single occasion. These findings are alarming because half of the pregnancies in developed countries and over 80% in developing countries are unplanned. That means that many women don’t realize they are pregnant during the early stages and that they continue drinking when pregnant.”

What is your hope for the future?

“We are all responsible for the prevention of FASD: partners, families, friends and communities should all help and support women during pregnancy. People with FASD – a preventable, but invisible disability – should not be forgotten by our societies”.