The Lead

‘This is 100 percent preventable:’ Public health advocates, lawmakers warn of risks of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

By: - September 9, 2019 1:06 pm

Jean Searle, of Harrisburg, who lives with the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Spectrum Disorder, speaks during a news conference in the state Capitol on 9/19/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Jean Searle, a Harrisburg woman who lives with the impacts of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Spectrum Disorder, has a simple warning for those expecting a baby, or who might be thinking about getting pregnant: If you’re tempted to have a drink, don’t.

“My mother drank while she was pregnant,” Searle said during a Capitol news conference Monday marking Fetal Alcohol Awareness Day in Pennsylvania. Years later, Searle said, she contends with attention span issues and other challenges as a result of her mother’s decision.

“If you’re pregnant,” she said. “Stop drinking now.”

Citing Centers for Disease Control data, approximately one in 100 children will be born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Spectrum Disorder, state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jennifer Smith said Monday.

And “the impacts [of the disorder] are staggering,” she said. Children born with FASD often have trouble concentrating and communicating, and may be vulnerable to being taken advantage of by others. Those born with the disorder may be born with smaller brains and smaller heads, officials said Monday.

For instance, Smith said:

  • 80 percent of children born with FASD will end up in the foster or adoptive care system.
  • 50 percent will be suspended or expelled from school during their academic career.
  • 60 percent will encounter problems with law enforcement

The good news is that “this is a 100 percent preventable disorder,” she added.

Pennsylvania’s addiction helpline, 1-800-622-HELP, is open 24/7/365 for those seeking assistance for substance abuse issues — regardless of whether you have insurance or not.

State Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, who’s sponsoring a resolution declaring September as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Awareness Month across the state, echoed Smith’s sentiments, nothing that there’s “no safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy.”

Dr. Renee Turchi, the chair of the Pediatrics Department at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, in Philadelphia, said that approximately one in 10 women will drink alcohol during pregnancy, and urged those thinking about getting pregnant, or who suspect they might be pregnant, to abstain from alcohol consumption entirely.

Education and intervention are key, she said.

“If we were doing our job from a public health perspective, there would be no need for an FASD practice,” at St. Christopher’s, she said. “It would cease to exist.”

At a time when opioid abuse is grabbing the headlines, alcohol addiction and abuse remains the state’s largest, ongoing public health challenge, Smith said. With the state also observing Recovery Awareness Month in Pennsylvania this September, Smith urged those contending with alcohol abuse and addiction to seek help.

“We must continue to break the cycle of addiction to ensure a healthy future for even the tiniest Pennsylvanians,” she said.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.