PEI

Should alcohol products on P.E.I. come with warnings about drinking and pregnancy?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder isn’t a topic people talk much about. FASD is a brain injury that can happen when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol. It's estimated 1.5 million Canadians have this disorder, about four per cent of the population.

'Parents just don't understand what the problem is'

'Alcohol really harms the brain in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, where as it disrupts the development of the body organs only in the first trimester,' says Dr. Elizabeth Elliott, a professor in pediatrics at the University of Sydney. (The Canadian Press)

Two fetal alcohol spectrum disorder experts from Australia say their country is moving in the right direction when it comes to preventing the disorder.

FASD is a brain injury that can occur when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol. Australia is moving toward putting warning labels about drinking while pregnant on liquor products.

Louise Gray, executive director of NOFASD Australia and Dr. Elizabeth Elliott, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Sydney, were touring the Island last week informing people about the prevalence of the disorder and how it can be prevented.

"We know in Australia about 60 per cent of women are drinking alcohol during pregnancy. They just haven't got the message that alcohol can harm the unborn child," Elliott said.

Some women are even drinking in a high volume before they know they are pregnant, she said.

Getting the message of the dangers of FASD to the public is part of the job, Gray said.

"We're looking at the sort of reaches that you can make into public health messaging through social media and ways to target audiences," Gray said.

'Really harms the brain'

Alcohol can disrupt the development of organs, particularly the brain, Elliott said.

Louise Gray, left with NOFASD visited P.E.I. along with Dr. Elizabeth Elliott from the University of Sydney in Australia to talk about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. (Mitch Cormier/CBC)

She said that means children exposed to alcohol during pregnancy can have a range of issues including physical, behavioural and developmental problems.

"The typical child we'll see who is severely affected might be born small, irritable, have a small head, have an abnormal looking face and may have some birth defects," Elliott said.

However, only a small proportion of the group who has the disorder will display these symptoms, Elliott said.

"Alcohol really harms the brain in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, where as it disrupts the development of the body organs only in the first trimester," she said.

Ruling out other disorders

Elliott said the typical child she sees in her clinic in Sydney is between seven and eight years old, has issues with academic achievement, is impulsive, aggressive and has difficulty with social behaviour.

"Parents just don't understand what the problem is," she said.

We are just going through a process at the moment of trying to decide exactly what those labels will look like and what they will say.— Louise Gray, executive director, NOFASD Australia

Often diagnosis involves ruling out other things such as genetic disorders and autism, Elliott said.

The Canada FASD Research Network estimates that in Canada, four per cent of the population or nearly 1.5 million people have the disorder.

On its website, Health Canada says the disorder is the leading known cause of preventable developmental disability in Canada. 

However, the agency also cautions that because of the difficulty in diagnosing the disorder, it often goes undetected, and because of that, Health Canada says it's difficult to know the exact number of people living with the disorder.

There are lots of battles at the moment to make sure those labels are prominent, that they give a clear warning.— Louise Gray, executive director, NOFASD Australia

The global health message is to abstain from alcohol use while pregnant, but that is now shifting focus to include pre-conception as well, Gray said.

"If you are sexually active and you are consuming alcohol then you should be using birth control," she said.

Labelling bottles

Australia has just mandated pregnancy warning labels for alcoholic beverages.

"We are just going through a process at the moment of trying to decide exactly what those labels will look like and what they will say," Elliott said.

Elliott said the warning will likely be similar to the ones that come on Canadian cigarette packages.

"There are lots of battles at the moment to make sure those labels are prominent, that they give a clear warning," Gray said, adding it took years of "fighting" to get to this point.

The Australian government has also come up with a 10-year action plan, she said.

What about P.E.I.?

CBC contacted Health PEI to find out what kind of education happens here on the Island. 

Officials pointed to the Public Health Nursing website and said the topic is covered in prenatal classes.

The website says there is no safe amount or safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy or when planning pregnancy.

Officials with the P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission said while it doesn't label products with a warning, it does try to educate Islanders about FASD through signage and posters in its locations and licensed premises.

More P.E.I. news

With files from Island Morning

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