Study Estimates 119,000 Babies Born Worldwide Annually With Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
According to a 2017 report from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, globally, around 119,000 infants are born each year with fetal alcohol syndrome. Also, roughly 15 in 10,000 currently live with the effects associated with the condition.
These numbers reflect a worldwide trend – on average, 10% of women across the globe drink during pregnancy – but in some countries, this rate is as high as almost 1 in 2. The study offers the first look at estimates of the rates of women who drink during pregnancy and fetal alcohol syndrome rates by country as well as globally.
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), the most severe form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), is a collection of conditions that hinder growth and induce mental, emotional, behavioral, developmental, and physical problems that can last into adulthood.
The countries with the most alcohol use during pregnancy were found to be Russia, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Belarus, and Ireland. Regionally, Europe was 2.6 times higher in prevalence than the worldwide average.
Regions with the lowest alcohol use during pregnancy and fetal alcohol syndrome were the Eastern Mediterranean and South Ease Asia, areas where many remain abstinent from alcohol use.
Of note, drinking during pregnancy does automatically equal fetal alcohol syndrome. In fact, the rate is relatively low in drinking mother. According to study author Dr. Svetlana Popova, only about 1 in 67 mothers who drink while pregnant will deliver a child with FAS. In a CAMH news release, however, she also noted:
“The safest thing to do is to completely abstain from alcohol during the entire pregnancy.”
Study authors stated isn’t clear which factors make a fetus most vulnerable to the harm of alcohol, regarding the amount or frequency of use during pregnancy. However, genetic factors may contribute to the risk of developing these conditions, as does nutrition, stress levels, and smoking tobacco.
Popova called the figures “conservative” and did not include other types of FASD, including partial FAS. The report was published in The Lancet Global Health journal.
More About The Study
Researchers included literature reviews and statistical analyses in their calculation estimates. Researchers noted that among the purposes of the study was to help inform countries on public health issues and plan policies, including educational efforts on the risks of using alcohol while pregnant.
Popova also stated that the predictive model developed for this study could be re-purposed to measure the prevalence of other conditions. The study team is extending this research to include all conditions that fall into FASD, and previously, the team conducted a study that that revealed more than 400 disease conditions that may occur along with the disorder.
What Is FASD?
FASD is not a diagnostic term, but rather is an umbrella term that includes all developmental impairments and disabilities resulting from exposure to alcohol in the womb.
Surveys from the United States have found about 1 in 10 pregnant women report having drunk alcohol in the last month, and up to 30% drank at some point during their pregnancy.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Effects may include:
- Abnormal facial characteristics, specifically a small head and a smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose, small wide-set eyes
- Growth deficits, below average weight and height
- Heart, lung, and kidney defects
- Deformed extremities such as fingers
- Poor judgment and reasoning
- Problems with vision or hearing
- Attention and memory problems
- Brain damage, mental retardation
- Poor coordination and delays in motor skills
- Delays in development and impairments in thinking, speech, and social skills
- Learning and intellectual disability
- Hyperactivity, behavior problems, lack of focus
What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
FAS is set of conditions that collectively, are considered to represent the most severe manifestation of FASD. Criteria for FAS include:
- Growth deficits – height or weight below the 10th percentile
Facial characteristics – small eyes, smooth philtrum, and thin upper lip
Central nervous system damage – structural, neurological, or functional impairment
Other forms of FASD are Other types include partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD).
Drinking Patterns and FAS
Most experts agree that no alcohol use during pregnancy is “safe.” However, some findings suggest that certain patterns of drinking are riskier than others. A study which culled data from studies performed on human, primates and rodent models revealed that binge drinking is more detrimental to in utero brain development than other patterns of drinking.
Also, it was discovered that early alcohol exposure, such as in the first weeks of gestation, may cause as much adverse effect on the brain development of fetuses as alcohol exposure throughout pregnancy.
A Possible Explanation
Some research has found evidence that many of the effects seen in children with FAS may be the result of high levels of ethanol inhibiting retinol oxidation in the infant. This would likely reduce retinoic acid synthesis in the embryo’s tissues, such as those in the central nervous system that require critical levels to determine spatial patterns.
Popova, S., Lange, S., Probst, C. Gmel, G. and Rehm, J. Estimation of national, regional, and global prevalence of alcohol use during pregnancy and fetal alcohol syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Global Health, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/S2214-109X(17)30021-9