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UQ Law researcher consulted in inquiry into the impacts of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

24 Oct 2013

A report by the Education and Health Standing Committee of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly has identified Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) as the leading cause of non-genetic, intellectual disability in Australia and the Western World.

UQ Law School researcher Professor Heather Douglas, an expert on FASD and the law, was consulted during the inquiry which also found that those with an FASD are very likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system. The report, ‘ Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: the invisible disability ’ , was released in September and makes a number of recommendations, such as the introduction of mandatory health labelling on alcohol products sold in Western Australia to warn about the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant.

It found that FASD had been widely under-reported and there were now third-generation FASD sufferers, and in some communities up to 30 per cent of people had the syndrome.

It estimated the irreversible brain damage caused to unborn children by their mother's excessive drinking was estimated to have flow-on costs of about $1 million over each person's lifetime where they had been involved with the justice system.

The report call s on the government to provide funding for screening, diagnosis, the collection of prevalence data and prevention. It recommended healthcare professionals should encourage all pregnant women to abstain from drinking while they were pregnant.

It also recommended all pregnant women should be screened for alcohol consumption and that the government fund twice-monthly appointments with child health nurses for pregnant women or mothers with children under four who were thought to be drinking excessively.

It said FASD should also be recognised as a disability . A child born with FASD has a lifelong condition which affects their lifestyle, the life of their family, their friends and the community in which they live. Cognitive impairment (CI) is caused by the dysfunction or developmental delay from the damage or deterioration of the developing brain caused by alcohol. Cognitive impairment is as an ongoing impairment in comprehension, reason, judgment, learning or memory. A child with CI may have developmental delays, difficulty hearing, problems with vision, learning problems, language and speech deficits, impulsiveness, a short attention span, and difficulties getting along with others.

Alcohol use during pregnancy has been associated with a number of adverse pregnancy outcomes. Current National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines recommend that not drinking is the safest option for women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy.

FASD is a serious condition that is totally preventable. FASD is caused by a mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy at levels which harm her unborn child. In the womb, alcohol freely crosses the placenta to the unborn child; it is metabolised more slowly after it has crossed the placenta, and the blood alcohol in an embryo or foetus can be higher than the mother’s blood alcohol concentration.

Difficulty with abstract reasoning is often demonstrated in children and adults with FASD by a failure to learn from experience and difficulty in understanding the consequences of actions. They can have problems understanding time and sequence.

Without adequate intervention and management strategies there are a broad range of secondary disabilities commonly identified with FASD, such as school absenteeism, drug and alcohol abuse, running away and homelessness.

The Western Australian Child and Youth Health Network has developed the FASD Model of Care which promote a multi-agency approach to the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and management of FASD. To date, the State Government has not given additional funding to the Model of Care, which currently relies on existing funds from other areas.

Funding is desperately needed to treat and care for children and adults who currently have FASD. Screening should occur for children considered at risk of FASD or involved with child protection and for all juveniles in the juvenile justice system.

Professor Douglas is on the organising committee of FASD and the Law: A Conversation about Current Research and Practices, which will bring together international experts to discuss developments and ideas regarding FASD and the law ahead of the 5th International Conference on FASD in Vancouver, Canada next February. For more information about the event contact Professor Douglas has also contributed to the Australian FASD Action Plan 2013-2016 produced by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. The Plan sets out a comprehensive program for preventing and responding to FASD over the next few years.

Professor Douglas is on the organising committee of FASD and the Law: A Conversation about Current Research and Practices, which will bring together international experts to discuss developments and ideas regarding FASD and the law ahead of the 5th International Conference on FASD in Vancouver, Canada next February. For more information about the event contact faslaw@uw.edu

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