Experts: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome a preventable birth defect

Published 9:47 am Tuesday, March 30, 2004

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC -- Fetal alcohol syndrome is the only completely preventable birth defect.
A study reported in Science magazine in February 2000 found that just one drinking binge by a pregnant woman was enough to permanently damage the brain of her unborn child, although moms receive mixed messages about consuming alcohol.
The study at the Washington University School of Medicine found that the brain is susceptible to alcohol-related neurological damage during the period when developing brain cells are building connections necessary for memory, learning and thought.
In humans, this takes place in the sixth month of gestation and continues for two years after birth.
There is a massive wave of cell suicide after the brain is exposed to alcohol. Cells die by the millions.
The study showed that it only requires one round of intoxication of about four hours for this to occur.
About one in every 1,000 babies born in the United States suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, a disorder caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb.
The disorder can cause stunted growth and memory and learning problems.
Community members were invited to attend a one-hour presentation March 25 in the Fred L. Mathews Conference Center East on Southwestern Michigan College's Dowagiac campus.
The presentation was organized by SMC psychology instructor John Hartman and Woodlands Addictions Center and featured Sheri Notten, co-chair of the Cass County Fetal Alcohol Committee.
Notten, of Decatur, shared her personal experiences as an adoptive parent of a daughter with fetal alcohol syndrome and the strains it put on her 25-year marriage. Amy, who will be 22 in May, works at the nursing home, attends North Pointe Center and lives in a group home.
It is a problem Cass County has been wrestling with since 1998.
The presentation included a short film about a permanently mentally retarded boy, Matthew, whose mother, now burdened with guilt and shame, consumed beer five times at parties -- maybe 20 drinks total -- after her doctor cautioned her only not to drink too much.
An expert in the film points out, you wouldn't give a baby a drink after it was born, so don't give any to unborn children, either, although some doctors "prescribe" a glass of wine at night to relax.
Certain things increase the risks that an unborn baby will be harmed by alcohol. If the mother uses other drugs, is in poor health, doesn't eat healthy food or doesn't get early prenatal care, the risks of birth defects caused by alcohol increase. Alcohol can cause damage during the first weeks, even before a woman knows she is pregnant, and can continue to harm the baby until birth. No matter when a woman stops drinking during pregnancy, her chances of having a healthy baby go up.
Notten has a doll with some of the telltale signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). No bridge to the nose, so the eyes appear farther part, with another fold of skin. The nose is so pushed back you can see up the child's nostrils. They might have a pointed chin, with a mouth too small for their teeth, or they might be missing teeth. Large knee caps are another indicator of this permanent brain damage.
Notten made the point subtly by suspending eggs in glasses of wine, vodka and beer before her audience arrived, then later drawing their attention to how poached they had become in a short time.
FAS children have problems sleeping. They need rest, but they become wound up like tops and are too hyperactive to calm down.
Ruth Andrews of Woodlands said the county began delving into FAS six years ago because of the number of children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder who began showing up in the special education program of Lewis Cass Intermediate School District.
Unable to filter out lights and noise, it drives them to distraction.
Their high level of frustration from daily living translates into a high suicide rate.
Usually FAS happens when women drink heavily during pregnancy, but most babies harmed by alcohol don't have FAS, but fetal alcohol effects (FAE) -- only some of the birth defects caused by alcohol.