Irish babies have the third highest rate of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in the world, a study claims.
The findings echo a report published this year in The Lancet, which also put Ireland in third place globally for the prevalence of the brain disorder caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy. FASD can include foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), partial FAS, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, and alcohol-related birth defects.
The latest study, published last week in JAMA Paediatrics, estimated a prevalence of 47.5 children with FASD per 1,000 births in Ireland. Only South Africa and Croatia were higher, with 111.1 and 53.3 per 1,000 births, respectively.
This compares with an average global prevalence of 7.7 per 1,000, says the study, which estimates that one in 13 women who consume alcohol while pregnant delivers a child with FASD, while one in 67 will have FAS.
“Any alcohol taken during pregnancy has the potential to harm the baby,” said Mary O’Mahony, a public health specialist. She said the data suggested about 600 Irish babies a year were born with FAS, and more than 40,000 Irish people had the condition. The non-specific nature of the symptoms makes it hard to diagnose, and so it could be more widespread.
“In Ireland we all know someone, child or adult, who has the invisible characteristics of the condition, such as attention deficits, memory deficits and hyperactivity,” she said.
According to O’Mahony, Ireland’s high prevalence of the disorder is linked to an above-average consumption of alcohol. In a 2013 study of women in their first pregnancy, 80% admitted drinking some alcohol. She says ideally women would abstain from alcohol when trying to conceive, but stopping at any stage of pregnancy will reduce the chances of FASD.
Cliona Murphy, a consultant obstetrician at the Coombe hospital in Dublin, said she was unsurprised by the findings, but felt FAS was still rare. “It’s really only seen in the heavier drinkers,” she said. “But we still don’t know what’s a safe dose and critical dose — it could be different in each person.”