By Daniel J. Vance


  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) permanently impaired about 12,000 American newborns last year—and the sad part is all 12,000 cases could have been prevented.

  The Washington D.C.-based National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) claims that FAS is the most common nonhereditary cause of mental retardation.

  Newborns with FAS often will have permanent, lifetime trouble with attention, learning, memory and problem solving. In addition, their physical growth will be stunted and they will have facial abnormalities, such as undersized eye openings, a small pointed chin, and a flat nose bridge, mid-face, and forehead.

  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can take place when a woman drinks any amount of wine, beer or liquor during pregnancy—especially the first eight weeks. By doing so she is indirectly poisoning, via blood vessels in her placenta, her unborn child.

  Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can also cause "milder" forms of FAS, such as Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder or Alcohol-Related Birth Defects, which permanently impaired another 35,000 or so newborns last year.

  So pregnant women take heed: don't drink alcohol.

  NOFAS Executive Director Thomas Donaldson believes the prevalence of FAS and its related forms are even more widespread. "A majority of newborns with FAS are not diagnosed at birth," he said. "This is because it can be very difficult to detect without an accurate alcohol usage history of the mother and because health providers are not trained to identify it."

  Only a handful of medical schools require any instruction on prenatal effects of alcohol.

  "The medical community needs to understand that FAS is a real problem," he said. "Most people don't realize that if FAS were a communicable disease it would be an epidemic if based on the numbers affected."

  Donaldson said that prenatal alcohol exposure causes specific brain abnormalities, which means that in the future doctors will likely resort to tools such as magnetic resonance imaging to make diagnoses.

  NOFAS's only state affiliate, Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (MOFAS), now has resources that rival or exceed those of the Washington D.C. office—thanks primarily to the leadership of Susan Carlson, wife of former governor Arne Carlson. "The Minnesota group has prepared parents to educate healthcare professionals," said Donaldson, "and they've helped people affected by FAS to develop strategies so they can reach their full potential." 

  To learn more, visit www.nofas.org or for the Minnesota affiliate, www.mofas.org.

  [Contact Mr. Vance at www.danieljvance.com. Copyright 2003 by Daniel J. Vance.]