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Native Leaders Meet on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

It’s one of the most pressing issues among native populations here in Alaska – the high incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This presents when mothers drink during their pregnancy and can cause everything from low birth weights to delayed mental development or heart defects.

While the Health and Social Services Department (HSS) reports that FAS fell dramatically since the 1990s, the rate among native Alaskans is still very high compared to the national average. The two-day meeting addressed the issue with native leaders and a panel that included those who suffer the effects of FAS.

This comes three years after the establishment of the Arctic Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Regional Training Center (RTC). The RTC was established in 2008 to “train healthcare professionals, including social workers, speech and language therapists, physicians, nurses, and psychologists, as well as students in these health professions.”

The idea is to spread information about FAS into the rural community, and this meeting advances the effort by bringing native authorities in to discuss issues relevant to their areas.

In Alaska, we track birth defects on the Alaska Birth Defect Registry and FAS is a reportable item. This allows a more accurate picture of the problem and helps HSS target specific groups for additional attention.

With almost 10% of Alaskans either regular abusers or dependant on alcohol, it is unlikely that FAS will completely disappear. However, when women are informed of the risks, they at least have a chance to make the right decision. Unlike in some other states, where drug or alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to criminal charges (chemical endangerment of a child), we do not prosecute the mothers of FAS babies. That leaves us with education and enhanced awareness as the main tools to combat the statistics.


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