New Zealand health groups say Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is reaching pandemic proportions, with high numbers of people living with the disorder undiagnosed.
The High Court heard last week convicted murderer Teina Pora has a condition on the foetal alcohol spectrum. Lawyers representing Pora said the diagnosis cast new doubts on his confession to the 1992 murder of Susan Burdett, due to his lack of understanding of what he was confessing to.
Global research estimates up to five per cent of the population has some form of FASD, suffering permanent brain damage as a result of mothers drinking during pregnancy. Government-funded advisory group Alcohol Healthwatch said data on FASD's prevalence was limited and the number of New Zealanders affected could be higher than five per cent.
Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams said the government has largely ignored calls for more research and "created a whirlpool of reasons to delay action on prevention and education".
In a upcoming policy briefing paper, Healthwatch will recommend the Government "close the gap between New Zealand and other western countries in planning responses and prevention".
"We need some leadership," Williams said. "We're grateful for the government backing, but it's a very small amount. It is in no way adequate to address the issue."
Head of the FASD Care Action Network Claire Gyde said families of people living with the disorder wanted greater emphasis on diagnosis. Gyde's 16-year-old adopted son was initially diagnosed with ADHD but two years ago was told by doctors he has Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder, a form of FASD.
"For me it was a bit of a relief," she said. "It meant there was a reason for his behaviour; his frustration, anxiety of not achieving, anger, slow processing and poor memory."
But she said her son, and many others with the disorder, found it difficult to accept.
"He has moments where he feels incredibly pissed off about it and wishes that he had a normal brain. It's frustrating for people who have this disability. It's a massive issue for society as a whole. It affects people from all walks of life. It's pandemic."
Paediatrician Jacque Raimond said many people with FASD were misdiagnosed, and said a national prevalence study was "well overdue", but that testing for FASD involved time-consuming neurological assessments that were often not carried out.
He said there was still misinformation from medical practitioners about whether any level of drinking during pregnancy was safe.
The Ministry of Health has, since 2006, recommended women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant do not consume any alcohol.
"There are a number of policies in place but the response of healthcare workers is not as strong or clear as it should be," Raimond said.
A landmark court case about to be heard in the UK could see a woman charged with poisoning her child for drinking excessively while pregnant, but New Zealand politicians say criminalisation is not the answer.
"Any approach that's about penalising women misses the point," Green MP Kevin Hague said. "Absolute focus has got to be on prevention."
National MP Tim MacIndoe said: "Personally I think prosecuting women for drinking would be going too far. There would be an outcry. Having said that, every encouragement should be given to expectant mothers not to drink."
MacIndoe said the government was looking at a number of preventative measures, but he stopped short of saying whether warning labels on alcohol containers would be made mandatory.
"Mandatory labelling might be considered - there are still evidence-based assessments being looked at."
Williams said the fact alcohol companies didn't have to print warning labels was a "complete and utter farce".
- Sunday Star Times
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