One in six children in the UK could have symptoms of a disorder caused by drinking in pregnancy, a study has found.
Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is thought to be under-diagnosed, with only one specialist clinic in England. The condition, caused by exposure to alcohol in pregnancy, affects learning and behaviour and can cause physical abnormalities.
Researchers from the University of Bristol and Cardiff University used information collected by women who were pregnant between 1991 and 1992. They followed the development of 13,495 children from birth until the age of 15.
“Our results showed that a significant number of children screened positive for features consistent with FASD,” said Dr Cheryl McQuire, researcher at the University of Bristol, in a paper published in the journal Preventative Medicine.
Dr McQuire said the results were based on a screening tool, which is not the same as a formal diagnosis. A positive FASD screen was defined as problems with at least three different areas of learning or behaviour, with or without physical anomalies. These anomalies include growth deficiency and distinctive facial features, such as a thin upper lip and small eye openings.
“Nevertheless, the high rates of prenatal alcohol use and FASD-relevant symptoms that we found in our study suggest that FASD is likely to be a significant public health concern in the UK,” she added.
“These results are important because without UK estimates of FASD prevalence, awareness will remain low and children, teenagers and adults will continue to find it difficult to seek diagnosis and to access the support they may need.”
[Read more: Can I Drink Alcohol While Pregnant?]
In the research, which used data from the children of the 1990s study in Bristol, up to 79 per cent of children were exposed to alcohol, but only 17 per cent (one in six) showed possible symptoms of FASD.
Dr McQuire is now calling for further research to clarify the current prevalence of FASD in the UK. “These children will have difficulties that will persist across their lifetimes,” she added. “There is evidence to suggest that if these individuals are diagnosed early and if they and their families get appropriate support, they can achieve much better outcomes.”
What is FASD?
Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a term used to describe impacts on the brain and body of individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. It’s a lifelong disability and individuals with FASD have their own unique areas or strengths as well as difficulties.
Children with FASD may experience:
- Issues with attention, concentration or hyperactivity
- Academic issues, including specific deficits in mathematics and memory skills
- Very specific language deficits e.g. poor receptive language
- Short term or working memory issues
- Social or relationship challenges
Source: FASD UK Network.
Dr Raja Mukherjee, who runs a diagnostic clinic for FASD at Surrey and Boarders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, said the results were important and show there are likely to be many individuals with this disorder already out there who are being missed.
“There seems to be a disconnect between these findings and what many clinicians often report as a rare condition,” he said. ’It shows that it is a disorder that is seemingly hidden in plain sight that we need to pay attention to. These results can be the first step in helping us in the UK to realise it is no longer a condition we can ignore.”
However Clare Murphy, from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), said: “We advise real caution over the interpretation and communication of these findings.
“This study, as the authors themselves acknowledge, does not prove any causal link between pregnancy drinking and the developmental outcomes recorded, and may cause pregnant women and parents needless anxiety.”