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Fetal alcohol syndrome is a set of physical abnormalities caused when a woman drinks during pregnancy.

Caring for children with fetal alcohol syndrome in Canada costs millions of dollars a year and researchers are calling for more resources to fight the disease.

"The cost...is staggering, but it really does not tell the real story of misery, poor quality of life and lifelong suffering for the children and their families, which cannot be measured in dollars," said Dr. Gideon Koren, who supervised a recent study on fetal alcohol syndrome.

The study, by Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and St. Michael's Hospital, estimates the disease costs Canada more than $344 million a year. Nineteen per cent of that comes directly out of family's pockets.

"It is hoped that this seminal paper will lead to desperately needed resources," said Dr. Brenda Stade, the study's lead author and program director of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Clinic at St. Michael's Hospital.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is caused when women drink during pregnancy. It is the leading cause of life-long developmental and cognitive disabilities among Canadian children, affecting up to one in 100 births, said Stade.

The study found families pay an average of about $14,000 a year to support the needs of a child with fetal alcohol syndrom. Special education and medical costs accounted for about a third of the out-of-pocket expenses for each family.

The greatest burden occurs when the children are between six and 15, as costs increase for specialized education and the use of psychologists, psychiatrists and occupational therapists.

Fetal alcohol syndrome causes a range of physical and psychiatric problems, from learning disabilities to behavioural problems. Affected children with can also show a wide range of socially inappropriate behaviours, including lying, stealing and an inability to differentiate right from wrong.

There are an estimated 400,000 Canadians with fetal alcohol syndrome.

The study appears in this week's issue of the Journal of FAS International.

(with notes from Canadian Press)