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One in five children may have foetal alcohol spectrum disorder

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Up to one in five British children could have symptoms of a disorder caused by drinking in pregnancy, a landmark UK study has found.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is an incurable condition, caused by exposure to alcohol in pregnancy.

Sufferers can have a range of physical abnormalities and behavioural and learning difficulties, with cases ranging in severity.

The UK has the world’s fourth highest level of pre-natal alcohol use but the new study, carried out by researchers at Bristol and Cardiff Universities, is the first to estimate how many people may have FASD.

FASD specialist Dr Raja Mukherjee told Sky News: “Whilst we need to go and find out what the exact figure might be, this report stops the debate saying that FASD doesn’t exist. It makes people take this seriously and say ‘we can’t keep ignoring it and putting our heads in the sand, because it’s out there’.”

The researchers used information collected by women who were pregnant between 1991 and 1992.

They followed the development of 13,495 children from birth until the age of 15, and found 17% of them screened positive for features and symptoms consistent with FASD.

Researchers hope the report will reignite debate over safe levels of drinking during pregnancy.

An eight-month pregnant woman holding a glass of wine, London
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Guidance states the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all if you are pregnant

Current government guidelines acknowledge that it’s unknown about how much – if any – alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy.

The advice, in England and Wales, is that it is safest to totally abstain but that low amounts of alcohol during pregnancy are likely to carry a low risk of foetal abnormalities. ‘Low’ would be considered between 1 or 2 units of alcohol (equivalent to a little over a small glass of wine, or a pint of beer), once or twice a week.

But some FASD campaigners say that is still too much.

Clare McFadden, 24, was diagnosed with FASD at birth. She has facial features distinct to FASD as well as behavioural problems including severe anxiety.

“No one knows how much is a safe amount to drink, so just don’t do it,” she said.

“I have really bad anxiety, so that kind of got in the way of a lot when I was younger. And I don’t have a lot of confidence, which really has affected how I can live my life.”

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, however, is sceptical about how useful the new research is. The study only looked at prevalence of FASD and did not determine any direct, casual links between alcohol consumption and symptoms.

A BPAS spokesperson told Sky News: “Many women have drunk before finding out they are pregnant, and messaging around pregnancy drinking which overstates risk or distorts the available evidence can lead some women to consider ending what would otherwise be a wanted pregnancy, or spend that pregnancy wracked with guilt and anxiety.”

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