FOETAL alcohol syndrome is ravaging Western Cape farming communities, with hundreds of children affected, research has found.
That’s according to the preliminary findings of a five-year study, currently in its fourth year, being conducted by UCT, Stellenbosch University, the University of New Mexico in the US, and the Medical Research Council of South Africa (MRC). The areas studied include Wellington, Bonnievale, Robertson, Ashton and Montagu.
According to the findings, the Western Cape still has the highest incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome worldwide.
The syndrome, which results from pregnant women drinking alcohol, is characterised in children by distinctive facial features, which include narrow-set eyes, a small head, small jaw, and a flattened groove between the nose and upper lip.
Alcohol intake during pregnancy can negatively affect the child’s central nervous system and co-ordination, mental and social development, as well as their ability to reason.
In Wellington, researchers found a prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome of between 61 and 94 per 1 000 children. The rate in the combined areas was between 94 and 130 per 1 000 children. A total 1 663 children from Wellington took part in the study, while 3 319 were assessed from the combined areas.
The provincial government’s Robert MacDonald said the long-term results of foetal alcohol syndrome were difficult to manage. “We’re under no illusion about the scale of the problem,” he said, adding that the challenge was to change people’s behaviour and to find skilled social workers to work in rural areas. Awareness campaigns alone would not solve the problem, he said, and this was the weakness in the government’s response, which relied on awareness.
Professor Phil May, of the University of New Mexico, said that if children were diagnosed early and provided with special education and opportunities, they could develop fairly well.
Another aspect of the research included community surveys, and the team found that a high percentage of the drinkers involved in the study exhibited symptoms of “hazardous” or harmful drinking.
Professor Charles Parry, director of the MRC’s drug and alcohol research unit, said 34 percent of the women surveyed in Wellington were drinkers, and 38 percent for the entire area.
The researchers found that having 5.7 drinks twice a week in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy could result in a baby with foetal alcohol syndrome. A control group showed that 3.8 drinks twice a week could end in a normal birth.
The group tested 1 036 babies at six weeks of age, again at nine months, and at 18 months.
The aim is targeted developmental education and special programmes for enhancing each child’s abilities.
Interventions for high-risk women included motivational interviewing and community reinforcement, where the team introduced the prospect of a more rewarding sober lifestyle.
High-risk women were also recruited from antenatal clinics in Wellington and seen for support by a study officer.
After the six-month to a year-long period of intervention, 30 percent of the women involved in the study had stopped drinking. At 18 months, that increased to 40 percent.
Researchers stressed that it would take a multisectoral approach to address the problem. They also pointed out that while the dop system was illegal, the legacy of heavy drinking at weekends remained a widespread problem.
Nosey Pieterse, chairman of farmworker union Bawsi, blamed the high rates of foetal alcohol syndrome and alcoholism on the dop system, which started declining only in the 1990s.