Katarina Wittgard: Slowly but surely it’s getting better

September is FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) Awareness Month and September 9 is global FASD Awareness Day. We turned to Katarina Wittgard, who is the leader of FAS-föreningen in Sweden, to ask about their work in Sweden and the situation in other countries in our region.

September is the FASD Awareness month (with the main focus on 9th), is there anything your organisation is doing specifically on that time?

We spread as much information as possible by campaigning for FAS-Day and FAS awareness in our social media.

How big an issue FASD is in Sweden?

Hard to say, but it’s for sure that many people do not know about FASD.
Sweden is among the countries in the world with the best maternity care. It reaches almost 100% of all pregnant women. Nevertheless, there are women who do not take note of, don’t understand or not believe in information about the risks of alcohol during pregnancy. Most people also do not know what the consequences for the child may be in the long run.

Are you satisfied with how the government deals with the issue?

Well…as long as the general knowledge of FASD is still low, and babies are still born with FASD I’m not satisfied. However, efforts are made, which of course is very positive and preventative work for minimizing the damage from alcohol, drugs, tobacco and doping is highly prioritized by Swedish authorities.

What else would you like to see from the state? What kind of policies could be used to prevent alcohol-related birth defects?

Schools should teach children about the risks of alcohol during pregnancy significantly earlier. If the knowledge about the risks does not come with the mother’s milk, it must, in other words, be given with the school lunch!

Even though Nordic countries are strong when it comes to alcohol policies, but there doesn´t seem to be many organisations that focus on FASD. Do you agree and if so, what could be the problem?

I really agree! FAS-föreningen is the only FASD organization in Sweden, there have been attempts to build up organizations in Norway and Denmark, but I know they struggle a lot. In many ways, it was easier when FAS-föreningen was born almost twenty years ago. We came together because we needed to share information and experiences, today everything can be found on Google and shared on social media.
People still have the need to meet in person, but many families have a hard time handling their children with FASD and the everyday life. They need help and support from an organization, they don’t have the time and energy it takes to start one!
In Sweden, the long distances is also a problem. It’s difficult for people to come together and work something out when it is hundreds of kilometres between them. The Internet is useful to get in touch, but it doesn’t cover the need for personal contact and relations.
There can also be barriers for foster families to start or join organizations with a focus on FASD because of rules for confidentiality. I’m grateful it’s not the case in Sweden.
Some parents don’t want to join an organization for other reasons. Some parents tell that it takes time to realize the child has disabilities. Joining an organization means recognizing that the child has life-long disabilities, they feel it’s so definite.

Do you have any cooperation with other Nordic or Baltic countries and organisations?

Not much, to be honest, due to lack of time and resources. But we should definitely want more cooperation! We are all small countries and need each other!

All in all, do you see that peoples awareness of the dangers of prenatal alcohol exposure is growing? Are things getting better?

Slowly but surely it’s getting better, I should say. The subject is discussed on a governmental level today, it is mentioned in statements from authorities etc. which was not the case only ten years ago. Things are done, but still, there are much more to do!