Letter to the Washington Post Editor submitted 1/25/16 by Susan D. Rich, MD, MPH, DFAPA:
An article on January 18, 2016 in the Washington Post’s Health and Science section, “This mother drank while pregnant. Here’s what her daughter’s like at 43,” features a courageous mother, Kathy Mitchell, and her daughter Karli who should be applauded for their tireless efforts to raise awareness about this prevalent and preventable condition. Over the past 22-25+ years, Kathy and Karli have done great work to raise awareness about FAS. Kathy is the renown spokesperson for and Vice President of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Karli has worked diligently as a volunteer in the office, stuffing envelopes, creating artwork for their logos, and providing an optimistic outlook with her beautiful smile that lights up a room. She won the Presidential Points of Light Award for her volunteerism. Their story is depicted in my 2001 Documentary: Dispelling Myths about Alcohol-related Birth Defects: http://www.susanrich.info/psychoffice/patient_myths.html.
Unfortunately, the article perpetuates the myth that intellectual disability and other neurodevelopmental problems only occur in heavy drinkers and that effects of prenatal alcohol exposure are relatively uncommon. Alcohol can cause a range of neurodevelopmental disorders – actually nearly every neurodevelopmental disorder of childhood can be caused by alcohol. Here’s a chapter I co-authored in an International book on autism: http://www.intechopen.com/…/clinical-implications-of-a-link…. We’ve known since 1981 about an important “missing link” about prenatal alcohol exposure (from a seminal paper published by Dr. Kathleen K. Sulik at the University of North Carolina) that neurodevelopmental disorders (brain damage) associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE) can happen with as little as 4-5 servings of alcohol in one “binge” episode as early as the 3rd week post conception. This is actually the period of embryonic development, not fetal development. So, the real term for babies with the facial features and severe deficits associated with prenatal alcohol exposure is “alcohol embryopathy.”
With 13.5% of childbearing age women binge drinking and 50% of pregnancies unplanned, inadvertent prenatal alcohol exposure before a woman knows she is pregnant means that not only alcoholic women are having babies with FAS. In truth, not all affected children have the tell-tell signs of characteristic facial features, severe intellectual disability and growth deficiency like Karli. As a child/adolescent and adult psychiatrist, I see first-hand the mood dysregulation, sensory and motor disorders, ADHD and executive functioning problems, and social communication delays caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we have an epidemic of 1 in 20 school age American children with preventable brain damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. Neurodevelopmental Disorder associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE), the topic of my upcoming book – “The Silent Epidemic: A Child Psychiatrist’s Journey beyond Death Row,” may be among the most significant public health crises since polio.
For 23 years, I have asked this simple question: Why has the alcohol industry not been held accountable for a failure to warn about this prevalent and preventable condition? A small label on their products indicating risk for birth defects in pregnant women is too little too late in my opinion – since much damage has already occurred before a woman knows she is pregnant. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, the tobacco industry, and other corporate megaliths have been called out for harm caused by their products. Attorney Laura Riley and I recently addressed this question in a chapter in an international book on Legal/Ethical issues in FASD http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319208657 Neurodevelopmental Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure: Consumer Protection and the Industry’s Duty to Warn [Rich, Susan D. and Riley, Laura J. Pages 39-47; Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in Adults: Ethical and Legal Perspectives. An overview on FASD for professionals. Editors: Nelson, Monty, Trussler, Marguerite (Eds.)]. My blog attempts to address the missing link by recommending that alcohol users prevent pregnancy not just stopping drinking after pregnancy recognition. See http://www.bettersafethansorryproject.com.
Remember – if you drink alcohol and are of childbearing potential, avoid pregnancy (i.e., contracept or avoid sex). If you are pregnant or planning pregnancy, avoid alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are now promoting our message – It’s better to be safe than sorry – alcohol and unprotected sex don’t mix!!! http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0202-alcohol-exposed-pregnancy.html.