For the first time, many South African babies born with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) will be diagnosed at birth – giving them a far better chance at getting help.
It was announced last week that the world’s first commercial project to diagnose and analyse the syndrome in new-born babies was being launched in South Africa.
FAS is a birth defect caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy. It is characterised by growth and mental retardation, facial and neural abnormalities, as well as malformations of organs. Children suffering from the syndrome have learning disabilities, show poor co-ordination, have problems with memory, and exhibit hyperactivity and behavioural problems.
It is estimated that South Africa has 4 000 reported new cases of FAS every year, the highest in the world. The majority of these cases are reported in the Northern and Western Cape.
The test, which will be rolled out in a few targeted areas, was developed by English company Trimega Laboratories, founded and led by local entrepreneur Avi Lasarow.
Trimega was the first company to market hair alcohol testing, and the test for the syndrome in babies is based on a similar system.
The company is working in partnership with local forensic science company Tripelo, which will be conducting the tests.
Lasarow said the test was done on the baby’s first stool, which would be taken from the hospital to the laboratory. The tests would be able to see whether the baby had high levels of alcohol in its system.
When alcohol crosses the placental barrier, it can stunt foetal growth, cause facial stigmata and damage neurons and brain structures.
Lasarow said that in a number of cases, however, physical traits were not always obvious and it could take years before a child was diagnosed with the syndrome, often at school when they showed learning and behavioural difficulties.
“The benefit of this test is that the parents and doctors can intervene immediately, helping in the right treatment of the child so that the parents won’t just think their child is naughty. They will know there is a health problem here,” said Lasarow.
The testing is part of a UK-South Africa bilateral forum, which is a commitment made to double bilateral trade between the countries by 2015.
The UK Department of International Development committed £76 million (R881m) to support South Africa, particularly with health issues. The money for the testing will be part of this funding.