DISABILITIES

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By Daniel J. Vance


Fetal alcohol syndrome is a disability few Americans dare talk about because of the attached social stigma.

According to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) website, the syndrome affects about 40,000 U.S. infants annually and occurs when a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy. Sometimes doctors call it “fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.” Its effects in a child often include growth deficits, distinct facial characteristics, mental retardation, hyperactivity and behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and attention and memory problems.

But Kathleen Mitchell of Olney, Maryland, isn't afraid to talk. “I was only age 17 when pregnant with my second child in 1973,” said Mitchell in a telephone interview from her Washington D.C. office where she is a NOFAS vice president and spokesperson. “The literature on what alcohol could do to a fetus hadn't come out in 1973.”

It wasn't until her mentally retarded daughter reached age 16 when doctors finally made a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

Mitchell said, “I was overwhelmed with grief once I found out about my daughter having FAS. I've dealt with it by becoming an advocate and educating the public. I want to keep others from having to experience such tragic consequences because of (indulging in) a socially acceptable behavior. Alcohol is almost a rite of passage for some American woman.”

Mothers often go years until doctors correctly diagnose a child, said Mitchell, and that delay means mothers may continue drinking alcohol during later pregnancies. For instance, Mitchell went on drinking alcohol after her second child and had three more children without ever realizing she was affecting anyone. She eventually put the pieces together herself after stumbling upon some literature.

To be diagnosed with “full-blown” FAS, an infant must show growth retardation, central nervous system damage and distinctive facial characteristics. The severity depends on when and how much alcohol the mother drinks in pregnancy.

“Children with it usually have a wide variety of learning problems,” she said. “And doctors often don't connect those problems with fetal alcohol syndrome.”

A recovering alcoholic herself, Mitchell advised, “It's never too late to stop drinking alcohol. If you learn you're pregnant, stop immediately. The longer you drink and expose the fetus, the higher the risk. If you're planning a pregnancy, don't ingest any alcohol.”

While no cure exists, FAS always has been 100 percent preventable when pregnant women abstain from all alcohol.

For more see danieljvance.com or www.nofas.org [This column made possible by a grant from Blue Valley Sod, www.bluevalleysod.com]