A national awareness campaign and reframing harm prevention messages are among the strategies needed to better prevent and diagnose Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) have told a federal inquiry.
Experts in epidemiological research from MCRI have contributed to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee’s inquiry into optimising life outcomes for children with FASD, which refers to the range of problems caused by alcohol exposure during pregnancy.
FASD can cause childhood problems including learning difficulties, bone and joint deformities and heart defects.
MCRI Professor Jane Halliday welcomed the opportunity to provide a submission to the inquiry and said her team particularly emphasised the importance of prevention and early diagnosis.
Research has shown that between 34 per cent to 54 per cent of women, aged 18 to 45 years, consume alcohol in pregnancy.
“Alcohol use continues to be prevalent in the general antenatal population despite health messages advising abstinence and a widespread awareness that alcohol use in pregnancy could be harmful to the developing child,” Prof Halliday said.
“FASD in the general population continues to be underdiagnosed, meaning that the extent of harm remains hidden and leading to the belief that occasional alcohol use in pregnancy is safe.”
Dr Halliday said it was important to reframe discussions around harm prevention or whether there was a potentially ‘safe’ threshold.
“The message should emphasise the importance of alcohol abstinence – that is, zero alcohol during pregnancy at all, in optimising health and cognitive outcomes for the child,” she said.
The researchers are calling for a national campaign, more health industry training and secondary school education programs to increase public awareness and understanding of how alcohol consumption during pregnancy affects the developing baby.
They also want easily accessible sources of information for women and the community, that are visual, easy to understand, culturally relevant and available in different languages and strategies to correct misinformation about supposed ‘safe’ timing, quantity and types of alcohol.
FASD expert Evi Muggli said the required specialist multidisciplinary diagnostic services currently remained few and far between, meaning FASD in Australia continued to be underdiagnosed.
She said there was also a need for accurate and consistent data on alcohol use in pregnancy to be incorporated into the mandatory National Perinatal Minimum Dataset as part of ongoing monitoring.
“An evaluation should be undertaken as soon as possible to determine if there is a need to upskill or assist midwives in any way in order to ensure this data collection is meaningful and useful,” she said.
The MCRI submission to the Senate Committee Inquiry can be found on the Australian Parliamentary website. The committee will report by 15 June in 2020.