Project brings hope for babies at risk of alcohol disorder in womb

04 September 2016 - 02:00 By TANYA FARBER

"I Saw it ... My niece Elsie was a newborn baby and her mom, my brother's girlfriend, was too drunk to care for her. She spent the whole pregnancy drunk and even fed the baby wine from a little bottle. Elsie got used to it and cried for it."Today, that baby is 20 and the Gugulethu aunt who adopted her has loved her like one of her own. But it has been an uphill battle against illness, slow development, learning disability and emotional stress.The young woman - Elsie is not her real name - who has the mental capacity of a nine-year-old, was diagnosed with depression this week after expressing suicidal thoughts.We gave that woman clothes and a blanket for the baby, but she just sold them for wineHer condition lies within foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a condition in which South Africa is the world leader.Leana Olivier, CEO of the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research, which has conducted 11 studies in four provinces, said: "In some areas the prevalence rate is as high as 25%."The Department of Health estimates the average FAS prevalence in South Africa is 6%. Compared with the next highest rate in the world, 1%-3% in America, this rate is alarmingly high."In the Western Cape, the foundation, which works nationally, was brought in as a partner by the provincial department of social development to conduct research, spread awareness and turn the tide on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the Saldanha Bay municipal area.A spokesman for the department, Sihle Ngobese, said the foundation's research was the basis of its approach to tackling the condition, which "affects people across all racial and socioeconomic groups".The foundation's latest project, Do You Have 3 Minutes?, was launched in May and entails community workers taking people through a user-friendly information card which explains what foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is, how unborn babies get it, its effects, and how to prevent it.The project is intended to reach 4,000 community members in Saldanha Bay."It is word of mouth," said community worker Hayley Hofmeester, holding up the knot symbolising International FAS Day on September 9. "We don't just speak to moms. We speak to everyone - we spread the message all over."Earlier this year, the foundation's three-year Healthy Mother Healthy Baby programme was completed in Saldanha Bay.Pregnant women were invited to sign up before 20 weeks of gestation to support them in having a substance-free pregnancy.The babies were then examined when they were nine months old.Said Olivier: "We enrolled 200 pregnant women. At the assessment session it was wonderful to hear the success stories of women who stopped drinking during pregnancy, and women who reported how they valued and needed the support, because many were drinking due to stress."The Do You Have 3 Minutes? project was already having an impact, said Olivier."Community members are phoning us for information. They stop the staff in the street to tell of their success stories or to check information - and people are asking for training."The Department of Health has asked the foundation to roll the project out in all Saldanha Bay municipal clinics. She was tiny for her age and later struggled to walk Martha Mabetshe adopted her brother's child when the girl was nine months old.The baby had survived being in her mother's uterus with her mom being drunk all day, every day, and after her birth was given wine to drink instead of milk."I knew right from the beginning this child wasn't right," said Mabetshe, "and I remember one lady told me: 'We gave that woman clothes and a blanket for the baby, but she just sold them for wine."When the infant was a month old, her mother left her on the steps of a social services office. She was in state care until social workers tracked down Mabetshe, who adopted her."I tried to give her some food and milk, but she was always sick and vomited up what I gave her."Mabetshe spent many nights sleeping at the baby's bedside at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in Cape Town over the next few months."I didn't accept what the doctors were saying. I loved her so much. She was so tiny for her age, and later struggled to learn to walk. Her face was so small but I didn't want to go back to the hospital to be told it was a permanent thing."From the age of two, the child would constantly thrust her body back and forth in a rocking motion, and violently flick her head from side to side at bedtime. That only stopped when she was seven."At primary school in Gugulethu, they kept pushing her up to the next grade. But at high school she couldn't cope and dropped out and now she is 20 and sits at home," said Mabetshe."It has been so hard, but I love her so much."Mabetshe's name has been changed to protect the identity of her niece. Even one glass puts baby at risk  • When you drink alcohol while pregnant, it moves through the placenta and is delivered directly to the developing tissues of your foetus;• The harmful effects of alcohol can damage the foetus at any stage;• There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy - even one glass puts the foetus at risk;• Foetal alcohol syndrome is 100% preventable - but 100% irreversible.• If you're pregnant and have been drinking, it is not too late to stop - you can reduce the risk of harm;• The most severe form in the spectrum can result in small head size, growth retardation before and after birth, intellectual disability, organ abnormalities and impaired facial features; and• Learning, behavioural and psychological problems can be present even with no physical abnormalities.

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