Cases of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder up to 3 times higher in the GTA than predicted, CAMH report says

‘FASD is a leading cause of developmental delays in children in Canada,’ report concludes

Scientist Lana Popova is seen examining a child in the southern African country of Namibia. She’s studying facial features as a part of the FASD diagnostic process. (Lana Popova )

A study released Tuesday shows fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) may affect two to three times more children in the GTA than originally believed.

FASD is an umbrella term describing three serious conditions that can happen when women drink alcohol during pregnancy. The result is often lifelong brain damage.

Dr. Lana Popova, a senior scientist at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), helped lead the new research. She explained its importance on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Tuesday.

Metro Morning
New study on prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in Canada

00:00 09:55

A new study on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder released this morning shows it is two or possibly even three times more common in Canada than previous estimates. The lead researcher joins us this morning, together with a woman who was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. 9:55

The data at the heart of the new CAMH report was collected by the  from 40 schools in the GTA. This was the first-ever study of its kind in Canada, and was part of an international study for the World Health Organization (WHO).

“FASD is a leading cause of developmental delays in children in Canada, who in many cases, require lifelong assistance for health, education and social service needs,” said Popova in a news release.

A total of 2,555 students, ages seven to nine, were studied from the Peel, Durham, Halton, York and Toronto regions.

Popova says they expected to find one per cent of students affected by the disorder, but the number landed between two and three per cent.

“Based on the large number of children who received a comprehensive assessment for FASD, we clearly show the scope of the problem, and the need for greater awareness to prevent alcohol use during pregnancy,” Popova said.

She said more than one million people in Canada suffer from the disorder.

Negative effects happen early in pregnancy

“The negative effects of alcohol consumption on the fetus likely occurred before the mothers knew they were pregnant,” Popova said.

Her information matches past research, which shows alcohol consumption causes the most damage three to four weeks into a pregnancy.

Unfortunately, this is a stage when most women don’t yet know they’re pregnant.

CAMH interviewed 173 mothers, most of whom said they stopped consuming alcohol after finding out they were pregnant. But around 10 per cent with a child with FASD reported continuing to drink.

The WHO is overseeing an international study of FASD in six countries. (The World Health Organisation )

Most never diagnosed

The study revealed the majority of kids and adults with FASD don’t know they have the disorder, and Popova said most doctors don’t know how it should be treated.

“More effective prevention strategies targeting alcohol use during pregnancy and surveillance of FASD are urgently needed,” the study says.

The WHO’s international study includes research from six countries.

The research shows FASD in Canada is three times more prevalent in remote northern communities.

Julia Knope · 

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