FASD mathematics from Estonia

Last week, October 24-25, several NordAN board members and representatives from member organisations participated at a conference in Marijampole in Lithuania. Conference was titled “Nordic and Baltic countries against drugs” and organized under the auspices of Lithuanian presidency of the European Union.

I was asked to speak about the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. FASD is in many ways one of the cornerstones in alcohol related harm and especially when we speak about passive drinking. This is harm that is done to a person in a situation where he/she cannot do anything at all to avoid that harm.

When drink driving statistics is rather well known and recorded, most countries have in fact no clue how many children are affected by alcohol during pregnancy. Three Baltic countries are definitely one of those. Even though fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) was “discovered” 40 years ago in 1973 by two dysmorphologists, Drs. Kenneth Lyons Jones and David Weyhe Smith of the University of Washington Medical School in Seattle, it sometimes seems that this information has´nt reached us.

In my presentation I used some common sense and simple mathematics to illustrate how big this problem could be in our society. So far it is thought that about 1% of children have FASD – 1 in 100 babies. But scientists have always added that we don’t have enough information and data to make comprehensive conclusions.

At the first international conference on FASD prevention in Edmonton, Canada, an International Charter on Prevention of FASD was adopted. Draft version of the charter wrote: “Recent estimates are that, in countries where drinking among women of childbearing age is common, 2 to 5 percent of all children have FASD. Rates of FASD have been reported to exceed 20 percent in some communities where heavy drinking during pregnancy occurs frequently. FASD is a condition of epidemic proportions in some populations.”

This is confirmed also by dr Philip May, who is a leading FASD diagnostic specialist. He even mentions 2-7%.

Now, lets put these numbers into a situation of one country – Estonia. Estonia has about 16 000 births every year. Which means that if 1% of children are affected by alcohol, that would make 160 children every year. But if we calculate these 2-5%, that would already mean 320-800 children annually. From last 18 years we find that about 15000 children are harmed by their mothers drinking. Just to remind you – Estonia has 1.3 million people. At the moment, most of these children are not recognized and thus also not understood and don´t receive the treatment they need.

Two years ago Finnish leading newspaper Helsinkin Sanomat published an article saying that according to Finnish researcher Ilona Autti-Rämö there are “hundreds, and possibly thousands of children in Finland who are born each year suffering from the ill effects caused by alcohol consumed by the mother during pregnancy…  In Parliament, the figure that has been repeatedly put forward is 3,000.” Finland’s population is 5.4 million.

Without a diagnosis these children are viewed as problems. With a proper diagnosis they are recognized as children with a problem. There is a big difference of course.

Alcohol is very well known to our societies. But we are still discovering the true depth of the problems it causes.

Lauri Beekmann is Secretary General of NordAN

Have a look at the NordAN´s Passive drinking blog