Alcohol consumption during pregnancy poses the risk of birth defects in children; a situation that can be completely prevented but once established cannot be cured. From mild to severe the prenatal effect of alcohol can result in one or many symptoms collectively known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). Children identified with various symptoms of FASDs can be grouped into three categories:
- Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)
- Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopment Disorder (ARND)
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
In a broader sense, ARBD refers to the physical deformities of internal organs in a child resulting from prenatal exposure to alcohol, while ARND specifically refers to the defects caused by hampered neurodevelopment with no visible facial abnormalities. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the severe manifestation of physical and neurological defects in a fetus as a result of alcohol intake during pregnancy resulting in irreversible birth defects. Syndrome refers to a group of symptoms and hence the name. During pregnancy, a woman’s body nourishes the fetus by providing nutrients and oxygen through the placenta. In women who consume alcohol during pregnancy, alcohol reaches the fetus through the placenta thereby affecting fetal growth in varying degrees resulting in either of the above-listed disorders, the most severe being FAS. Research suggests excessive alcohol reaching the fetus is unhealthy and could manifest into FAS, in the long run. Thus far, research has not established what amount of alcohol intake causes FAS and it is advisable that women in the habit of alcohol consumption take medical guidance to understand and minimize the associated risk of FAS during pregnancy.
Identification of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is based on certain medical guidelines to determine deviations from normal in the following order:
- Physical parameters of growth namely less than average weight and height at birth and in subsequent years.
- Abnormal craniofacial features such as absence of a defined middle cleft above the upper lip, a barely visible upper lip and reduced eye width suggestive of impaired neurodevelopment.
- Microcephaly or reduced circumference of the brain indicative of brain malformation that can have severe implications for growth and learning.
- Impaired cognitive and functional abilities in an individual manifesting in low IQ and attention deficit, among other learning disabilities.
Symptoms associated with FAS can be thoroughly identified and diagnosed only based on thorough and regular assessment of mother and child all through the gestation period and post child birth. However, completely avoiding alcohol consumption is the only way to prevent FAS as alcohol intake can result in FAS irrespective of the stage of the pregnancy; this is due to the fact that development of fetal brain and other organs is continues till child birth.
The symptoms of FAS make it challenging for an affected individual to lead a normal independent life and make up for their learning disabilities as well as a lack of social acceptance. Family members and caregivers of FAS affected children and adults need to be counselled to be able to accept and help these individuals and create awareness about FAS among others.