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Plea for more funding – not prison – to tackle Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

Campaigners are pleading for more funding to fight Foetal alcohol syndrome, which affects some 7m worldwide – with South Africa reporting the highest rates around the globe: 111.1 per 1 000 of the population – but say imprisoning mothers is not the solution.

Last week, as the world commemorated Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Awareness Day, Deputy Social Development Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu called for women who drink while pregnant to face criminal charges.

But Capetonian Vivien Lourens disagrees with criminalising these mothers.

“Who will look after the child when she is in prison? Instead, we need to educate women about the dangers of drinking when they are pregnant,” she argued.

News24 reports that nearly three decades ago, Lourens – whose daughter Tisha was born prematurely and was 10-weeks-old when she adopted her – started an NGO, the Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Information Centre (FASIC), with her husband Peter, so had good reason to support her argument.

"The centre could not find anyone to adopt Tisha because of all her health complications. We struggled with her health so I spent a lot of time at the Red Cross Hospital, where she received physical and occupational therapy,” Lourens said.

Her daughter, now 27, had only started walking after a year and also had speech delay. She still cannot read.

“The damage from Foetal Alcohol Disorder is forever and cannot be repaired – and mothers end up with a child with multiple syndromes.”

The Western Cape Department of Social Development allocates more than R108m to its substance abuse, prevention and rehabiliation programme, but NPOs say this is not enough.

It also runs a residential facility for children and adults with severe physical and intellectual disabilities, including those living with FASD.

However, Lourens said there would never be enough funding to address the needs of the victims.

Few residential facilities cater for these and and related disabilities and adults with FASD find it extremely difficult to find jobs.

“There needs to be more support for these people,” she said. “Once they turn 18, they have nowhere to go and no one to help them. What we need is education and support, starting from as early as Grade 6. More and more young people are drinking and need to be aware that it’s dangerous if you’re pregnant.”

Pebbles Project CEO Sophia Warner said the organisation ran FASD prevention programmes for pregnant women in farming communities.

The women attended a series of workshops and agreed to be breathalysed during pregnancy. Once they had completed the course, they would be rewarded with a box of items for the baby.

“A lot of work is done on awareness, but we need longer programmes for the duration of the pregnancy,” she said.

“Funding also needs to go to social workers and health promoters, and FASD education needs to extend to schools so that sexually active teens are aware of the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.”

Francois Grobbelaar, founder of FASFacts – one of the organisations that receives funding from the provincial government – said funding needs depended on the types of programmes offered. FASFacts runs prevention programmes focusing on women in rural communities, and the need for these was “huge”.

Dr Marlene de Vries from the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University, said women need better support to prevent FASD, and that 55 55 out of every 1 000 babies born in the province has FASD.

She has been researching FAS in rural areas in the Western Cape since 2008, and said it was important to remember that women do not drink to deliberately harm their babies.

“Often, it’s an escape mechanism, and the main social activity in their lives.”

None of the women in her study had completed their schooling, leaving them vulnerable in the labour market and financially dependent.

“Some have carried their childhood trauma and loss into adulthood and suffer from depression without receiving any counselling or treatment. They live in communities where weekend binge drinking is considered a normal and acceptable way of socialising. Often, their extended families, partners and friends are heavy drinkers.”

Many women were abandoned by their partners, or had had partners who abused drugs and alcohol, assaulted them physically, and failed to support them financially and emotionally, she added.

“This greatly influenced the women’s drinking behaviour during pregnancy.”


News24 article – 111.1 per 1 000: That's how many SA children suffer from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (Open access)


News24 article – Western Cape organisations say government's R108m to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is not enough (Restricted access)


The prevalence, child characteristics, and maternal risk factors for the continuum of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: A sixth population-based study in the same South African community (Open access)
See more from MedicalBrief archives:


South Africa’s top’s world misery list in foetal alcohol syndrome




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