Booze risks for unborn spur mum into action

Last updated 05:00 09/12/2012

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A mother of a disabled son is pleading for warning labels to be slapped on alcohol to prevent hundreds of children being born brain-damaged every year.

Pressure is mounting in New Zealand and Australia to take urgent action as lobbyists criticise the alcohol industry for its lack of action. More than 600 children are born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder each year in New Zealand, according to Alcohol Healthwatch.

Jackie Prichard said most days are a struggle as she copes with an 11-year-old son with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Doctors warned her of the risks of smoking, but no-one told her about alcohol, she said. "I would have thought twice if I realised it could do damage. We just didn't know about it."

She said she didn't get drunk while pregnant. A few drinks with friends as they played Yahtzee was enough to do the damage.

Her son's symptoms include behavioural and learning issues.

An Australian government inquiry into the disorder last week made the strongest recommendations yet and pushed for urgent action, including mandatory labels on all alcohol drinks and alcohol screening of all pregnant women.

Any potential changes to alcohol labelling is developed through the joint food standard that New Zealand shares with Australia.

Rebecca Williams, of Alcohol Healthwatch, said: "It is such a serious issue and the risk is quite prevalent. Ignorance or lack of discussion isn't really an option."

She said there was no safe level of alcohol during pregnancy.

"When you take it into your bloodstream your baby absorbs that. The risks are very high and if it has an impact it is permanent."

A trans-Tasman agreement on food labelling standards has given the alcohol industry two years to introduce its own warning labels.

There was no New Zealand data on how many bottles now carry the warning labels, but an Australian survey found just 2 per cent of alcohol bottles had warnings against drinking while pregnant.

"There's no agreed action plan," said Williams. "The Government's advice is not to drink while pregnant but there's no strategy behind that."

Lion, one of the country's biggest brewers, is phasing in a label that includes: "It is safest not to drink while pregnant."

Lion spokeswoman Judy Walter said the labels were being introduced as old labels run out, and should be completed next year.

While the absolute numbers of children affected by the syndrome remain very low, any incidence of this preventable disorder is unacceptable, she said.

The primary warning for expectant mums should come from doctors, she said.

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