An estimated 600 babies are born with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in Ireland every year, a public health specialist has warned.
Speaking at the annual general meeting of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), Dr Mary O'Mahony, a specialist in public health medicine at the HSE, pointed out that alcohol use during pregnancy can cause foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).
FASD is a term used to describe a range of permanent birth defects caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol, including intellectual difficuties, hyperactivity, memory problems and growth deficiencies. The rarest but most easily recognisiable form is FAS, which refers to children who have been exposed to very high levels of alcohol during pregnancy.
FAS can lead to growth problems, facial defects and lifelong behavioural and learning difficulties.
Dr O'Mahony told the IMO meeting that an estimated 600 babies are born with FAS here every year, and around 40,000 people are living with the condition.
Furthermore, 80% of Irish women pregnant for the first time admit to consuming some alcohol during pregnancy, and Ireland is currently one of the top five countries with the highest prevalence of alcohol use during pregnancy.
Dr O'Mahony explained that while children born with FAS may show visible signs of abnormalities that are recognised at birth, FASD may not be recognised until pre-school or school age when difficulties start to manifest.
"The consequences of FASD are induced brain damage, which is permanent and is associated with physical, mental, educational, social and behavioural difficulties. Children with FASD fill our foster care places, while adults with FAS fill our jails," she commented.
She also pointed out that many people with these conditions are misdiagnosed and she called for better resources for women, such as improved health promotion, screening and intervention.
"We need to support women. Clear, consistent advice is needed to abstain from alcohol throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. Most people know that drinking alcohol while pregnant can harm the baby, but lots of women still have questions about drinking during pregnancy. The long-term goal is to prevent FASD," Dr. O'Mahony added.
She made her comments at the annual general meeting of the IMO in Galway.