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Stay away from booze while pregnant

Samantha Stokell
Northern News Services
Published Monday, September 5, 2011

There is no time when drinking alcohol while pregnant is safe, say organizers of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Awareness Day.

Healthy Babies and the Prenatal Nutrition Program is holding awareness events around the NWT on Sept. 9 to let the people know that any alcohol consumed while pregnant will have effects on babies. Due to confusion in the past, it's important that people know the facts, organizers say.

"We don't know the effects of alcohol on a baby and because we don't know a safe amount or a safe time, there is no safe amount or safe time," said Diana Trang, regional Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program nutritionist at the Beaufort Delta Health and Social Services Authority. "FASD is 100 per cent preventable. If you don't drink, your baby won't get brain damage."

Trang and Healthy Babies co-ordinator Tammy Matthews will hold presentations and activities at Aurora College campus in Inuvik and possibly the high school, to encourage not only prevention of FASD but also for partners, family and friends to support pregnant mothers.

"It's a dad's issue as well and maybe they can help the mom by not drinking," Matthews said. "They can help them through the nine months of pregnancy by not bringing alcohol into the home."

In Canada, nine in 1,000 babies born will have some form of FASD, but that number rises in Northern, aboriginal and remote communities. The effects of drinking alcohol while pregnant include physical deformities and psychological issues that manifest in behavioural problems.

"Kids in class might have a hard time paying attention, problem solving, with judgement or in social situations," Trang said. "Physical deformities could include problems with hearing, vision, growing, or with the heart. We don't know how much alcohol is bad, so we say none at all."

The impacts of FASD have lifelong effects on children. The behavioural issues could affect their school performance or lead to the misdiagnosis of attention-deficit disorder. This could lead to problems later in life, such as dropping out of school, trouble with the law or having trouble staying employed.

"It's painful because diagnoses are important, but early detection can lead to prevention and stopping the other problems," said Narine Margaryan, the co-ordinator of FASD Services for the Yellowknife Association for Community Living. "It's not just to label them, but also to diagnose. In the justice system or social services, it's beneficial to have a diagnosis."

FASD must be diagnosed by a physician, but is difficult because much of the damage done by alcohol will be to the brain or nervous system and have little or no visible characteristics. FASD is actually an umbrella term for a number of characteristics caused by alcohol ingested during pregnancy.

The NWT held a part-time FASD diagnosis clinic at Stanton Territorial Hospital from April 2010 to March 2011 for youth ages seven to 17, but focused on seven to 11 year olds. Because the diagnosis is so difficult, a team of specialists evaluate the child. A speech therapist, social worker, neurologist and pediatrician will evaluate the child separately and then work together to come up with a diagnosis.

"It's such a complex area. All the professionals do the diagnosis and if there are any doubts, they do a reassessment in a year," Margaryan said. "I hope they expand to have an adult diagnosis team."

Diagnoses were limited to one to two children per month and included 10 clinics over the year. The team of professionals used the Canadian guidelines to look at the possibility of FASD, including pre-natal alcohol exposure, growth, facial features and brain functioning.

The key to preventing FASD though, is awareness and support for the mothers during the nine months of pregnancy. Margaryan said there are a number of reasons a pregnant woman may drink, including family violence, social problems or addiction and that is why support is crucial to reducing the number of babies born with FASD.

"No alcohol is best and as much as possible should be done to support pregnant women not to drink," Margaryan said. "FASD is a lifelong disorder and is 100 per cent preventable if there is no alcohol while pregnant."

Yellowknife and Fort Liard are also holding awareness events, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.

The Yellowknife Association for Community Living will host an awareness walk on Friday starting at 9 a.m. at the Centre for Northern Families. Stanton Territorial Hospital will also host an information event put on by the Child Diagnostic Team at noon, also on Friday.

Fort Liard will also host an event. Details were not available by press time, but contact the hamlet office for more details.

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