South Africa sees alarming spike in Fetal Alcohol Disorder rate

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Recent research findings have raised alarm among health authorities as they reveal a disturbing increase in the prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in South Africa.

The country continues to grapple with the highest FASD rates globally, with some regions in the Western Cape recording rates as high as 31% of children born with FASD, and parts of the Northern Cape not far behind at 28%.

While FASD remains incurable, it is preventable. Western Cape Minister of Health and Wellness, Nomafrench Mbombo, emphasised the severity of the issue, stating, “South Africa has the highest number of people with this Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder because it is not only about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome but also includes all other related disorders.”

Mbombo says, “Within South Africa, the Northern Cape and Western Cape are among the regions with the highest numbers. It’s not just about the child’s health; during pregnancy, challenges may arise, leading to preterm births and physical defects in some children.”

Healthcare workers on the front lines of this crisis witness the dire consequences of alcohol consumption during pregnancy on a regular basis, and they stress the pervasiveness of the problem.

Cecilia Engel, a healthcare worker, noted, “Many mothers, especially those lacking support from their families, struggle to comprehend and accept the importance of avoiding alcohol during pregnancy. Women often face a lack of support, particularly from men.”

The Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) has conducted 18 FASD Prevalence Studies across various provinces in South Africa since its establishment in 1997, including the Free State, Gauteng, and the Western, Eastern, and Northern Cape. Given the scale of the FASD problem in South Africa and its far-reaching effects, the organisation calls for collective action to raise awareness.

Jaco Louw from the FARR stressed the need for a supportive environment, stating, “We must create an environment where expectant mothers can seek help because psychosocial resources are not readily accessible to everyone. Many South Africans lack access to rehabilitation services for substance abuse treatment. Therefore, we require community-level support for pregnant women to discourage alcohol use.”

The foundation advocates for the establishment of additional support programmes and resources to address FASD effectively, emphasising that community support plays a pivotal role in assisting pregnant women to make healthier choices and safeguard the well-being of future generations.