New Brunswick

Spike in young adult drinking raises alarm at N.B.'s fetal alcohol centre

Young adults have been drinking more during the pandemic, raising concerns about women who might be pregnant and don't know the harm they could be doing.

An estimated 250 babies a year in the province are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is the leading cause of neurodevelopmental disability in Canada, affecting about four per cent of the general population. (Bernardo Emanuell/Shutterstock)

Annette Cormier has a habit of thinking nine months out when she looks at behaviour patterns today. 

So when new research from UNB suggests a third of young adults in New Brunswick are drinking more during the pandemic, she asks herself: How many are women who don't yet know they're pregnant and the harm that can result?

Cormier worked as a labour and delivery nurse for 20 years and is now the provincial manager of New Brunswick's Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Centre of Excellence in Moncton. 

She said exposure to alcohol in the womb can start causing damage to a developing fetus as early as 17 days after conception. 

"That's your fifth week into your pregnancy," she said. "And most of these mothers don't even know that they're pregnant. That's the first time you're missing your period."

Range of fetal harm

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, is the leading cause of neurodevelopmental disability in Canada, affecting about four per cent of the general population. 

That's more than all the people with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and Tourette's syndrome combined, according to the Canada FASD Research Network. 

"In New Brunswick this means about 250 babies per year," said Cormier.

Harm includes damage to vision and hearing, slow growth and bones that don't develop properly.

Annette Cormier, provincial program manager at the NB FASD Centre of Excellence, says she's seen mothers at the clinic who reported one binge, which is less than six drinks in one evening, that caused fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. (Submitted by Annette Cormier)

Some individuals will present with distinguishing facial features such as a thin upper lip or small eyes but in most cases, there are no visible signs of the challenges they face. 

They may have difficulty regulating their behaviours and emotions. The disorder can also impair memory, reasoning and judgment. 

Cormier said the brain damage is irreversible, but the centre does provide support to families and interventions can help individuals with the disorder make the most of the strengths they have, especially when children are diagnosed early. 

"Because what's happening is, the brain is still developing and we're able to create from the parts of the brain that are really working well, we're able to help children learn differently," said Cormier. 

"So the sooner we can start, the better."

No safe time, amount to drink during pregnancy

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada said there's no known safe amount to drink during any time in a pregnancy.

"Even the smallest amount of alcohol could impact the fetus," said Cormier.

Her ongoing concern are the women who don't think about abstaining because they're not thinking about getting pregnant. 

On the whole, 27 per cent of Canadians said they were drinking more. In New Brunswick, it was 20 per cent. (Shutterstock)

In Canada, one in five women reported an unintended pregnancy in 2016, according to a national survey by the society. 

That included women who expected to get pregnant at another time in their lives, those who never intended to get pregnant, and those who also reported using birth control. 

When the same survey asked Canadian women if they had ever had an unplanned pregnancy, 61 per cent said yes. 

Latest snapshot of drinking behaviour

Last August, researchers at the New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data and Training at UNB commissioned a sample of 500 New Brunswickers as part of a national survey on the mental health impacts of COVID-19.

The study found the stresses of the pandemic, including social isolation and the fear of infection for oneself or a loved one, were all identified as having a negative impact on mental health. 

The survey also captured an increase in what were defined as negative behaviours, including an increase in alcohol consumption across the country. 

On the whole, 27 per cent of Canadians said they were drinking more. In New Brunswick, it was 20 per cent. 

In New Brunswick, 32 per cent of people 18 to 39 years old said they were drinking more. Research associate Sandra Magalhaes said that’s worth measuring again. 'I’m anticipating it’s going to get worse.' (McGill University Health Centre Research Institute)

However, one subgroup stood out. In the 18-to-39 age group in New Brunswick, 32 per cent said they were drinking more. 

Research associate Sandra Magalhaes said that's worth measuring again. 

Another survey is underway this month and the data is being sorted by gender. It should reflect how New Brunswickers were feeling over the winter. 

"I'm anticipating it's going to get worse," said Magalhaes. 

"I remember back to August, that was a [relatively] good time. We had a great summer here in New Brunswick. We had a nice bubble with the Atlantic provinces. Everything was going really well. People were moving around. There were even incentives to travel."

Another snapshot will come next fall.

All together, Magalhaes said, this information will provide more insight into how the mental health impacts of COVID-19 are changing in the province over time. 


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