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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Overview :

FAS is the most common preventable cause of mental retardation. This condition was first recognized and reported in the medical literature in 1968 in France and in 1973 in the United States. Alcohol is a teratogen, the term used for any drug, chemical, maternal disease or other environmental exposure that can cause birth defects or functional impairment in a developing fetus. Some features may be present at birth including low birth weight, prematurity, and microcephaly. Characteristic facial features may be present at birth, or may become more obvious over time. Signs of brain damage include delays in development, behavioral abnormalities, and mental retardation, but affected individuals exhibit a wide range of abilities and disabilities. It has only been since 1991 that the long-term outcome of FAS has been known. Learning, behavioral, and emotional problems are common in adolescents and adults with FAS. Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAE), a term no longer favored, is sometimes used to describe individuals with some, but not all, of the features of FAS. In 1996, the Institute of Medicine suggested a five-level system to describe the birth defects, learning and behavioral difficulties in offspring of women who drank alcohol during pregnancy. This system contains criteria including confirmation of maternal alcohol exposure, characteristic facial features, growth problems, learning and behavioral problems, and birth defects known to be associated with prenatal alcohol exposure.

The incidence of FAS varies among different populations studied, and ranges from approximately one in 200 to one in 2000 at birth. However, a study reported in 1997, utilizing the Institute of Medicine criteria, estimated the prevalence in Seattle, Washington from 1975–1981 at nearly one in 100 live births. Avoiding alcohol during pregnancy, including the earliest weeks of the pregnancy, can prevent FAS. There is no amount of alcohol use during pregnancy that has been proven to be completely safe.

There is no racial or ethnic relation to FAS. Individuals from different genetic backgrounds exposed to similar amounts of alcohol during pregnancy may exhibit different signs or symptoms of FAS. Estimates state that 30-45% of women who consume six or more drinks a day throughout pregnancy will give birth to a child with FAS. The risk of FAS appears to increase as a chronic alcoholic woman progresses in her childbearing years and continues to drink. That is, a child with FAS will often be one of the last born to a chronic alcoholic woman, although older siblings may exhibit milder features of FAS. Binge drinking, defined as sporadic use of five or more standard alcoholic drinks per occasion, and "moderate" daily drinking (two to four 12 oz bottles of beer, eight to 16 ounces of wine, two to four ounces of liquor) can also result in offspring with features of FAS. Experts say a few binges early in pregnancy—before a woman may even know she is pregnant—may be enough to be dangerous, even if she stops drinking later.

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