OPINION: Of all the alcohol-related harm in New Zealand there's an especially wretched category we are now being warned is expanding alarmingly.
Children born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder come into the world cruelly disadvantaged from the get-go.
Not only do they face enormous challenges themselves; they will pose them for those who would raise, educate and love them.
Oftentimes it all goes very, very badly.
Children's Commissioner Russell Wills, a pediatrician, is now citing a "terrifying explosion" during the past five years in the number of children with signs of the syndrome, which is caused by parental drinking – and not necessarily extravagantly – during foetal development.
This appears to be less statistically based than Dr Wills consulting his own experience and those of his colleagues. He works largely with children with severe behaviour disorders.
It's not as if we haven't had ample cause for alarm in any case.
Even before the commissioner spoke up, the figure most commonly cited was that about 500 to 600 babies a year are born in New Zealand with the disorder.
That figure appears to have been based on applying international research to this country's population levels. Unhappily, the binge-drinking culture is particularly bad in New Zealand, so there's every prospect that we are emphatically on the wrong side of any average.
It gets sort-of worse.
There's a school of thought that FASD-related issues have often been interpreted as other illnesses, such as attention deficit disorder, and autism.
That is perhaps understandable.
People associate particular physical characteristics with the foetal alcohol syndrome. And yes, in many (though not all) cases there can be some facial abnormalities, or stunted growth, organ, sight and hearing difficulties, or a cocktail of those.
But there are also behavioural issues; learning difficulties, trouble with memory and problem solving, and short attention spans.
Inevitably, some people will interpret this as just another reclassification of the same problem; another wind-change in the shifting directions from which we attribute fashionable blame for behavioural problems.
But correct identification of such disorders is key to providing the right treatments and supports for people who may find themselves unable to govern their emotions, learn from mistakes, control impulses or plan.
(Congratulations if, at this point, you resisted the immediate temptation to digress into a trite and obvious political joke.)
How to confirm and cope with a substantial increase in FASD is a significant problem in itself, though the even greater one is how to stop creating the problem. Public campaigns hammering the message that there is no safe limit for drinking during pregnancy have had, at very best, limited success.
The adequacy of the Government's alcohol reform programme remains contentious and in that context the Children's Commissioner has added measurably to the pressure.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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