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PUBLISHED: 2:38 PM on Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Time to address Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

There is nothing more beautiful, more precious than a baby.

But imagine a world in which we took our infants, before they were born, and dunked them in poison.

Yet that's exactly what's happening to thousands of Alaskan infants each year.

They're being poisoned before birth. In their mothers' womb. Every time their mothers drink alcohol.

This tragedy has a name-Fetal Alcohol Syndrome-and it is the most common mental disease/illness in America.

And the most preventable.

Mom takes a drink, Junior loses some brain cells.

The unborn infant literally soaks in the alcohol in Mom's system.

Research now shows that drinking-even a few ounces of alcohol-at any time during pregnancy, can cause brain damage.

Often mothers are drinking for weeks, before they know they're pregnant.

And to add more tragedy, even doctors have long recommended that pregnant women consumer moderate amounts of alcohol, say a glass of wine with dinner. While commonly-cited research suggests heavy one-time drinking can do more harm than moderate drinking, nobody knows how little is enough to do harm and it's been suggested even one drink, one glass of wine, one beer, at the wrong time, can cause permanent brain damage.

A baby born with FAS may be seriously handicapped and may require a lifetime of special care.

Others have alcohol-related birth defects, including smaller body size, lower birth weight, and other impairments without all of the classic FAS symptoms.

Many more are just less they could have been, cursed with a lifetime of behavior problems.

An extensive conference at Juneau's Centennial Hall Jan. 25-27, will address FAS in Alaska.

"An Overwhelming Opportunity"--"A Southeast Alaska Regional Conference

On Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)" will look beyond the issue of alcohol, to the long-term social issues of FAS in our communities.

For more information on the conference, see www.hss.state.ak.us. For more information on FAS in Alaska, see http://www.fasalaska.com/.

Understand this is not a for-or-against alcohol question, but a way to begin to understand FAS and the horrible toll it is taking on Alaskans.

A disclaimer here: Drinking beer and wine is as much a part of my German family heritage as sausage and big family celebrations. The 15 years my dad worked in Texas breweries clothed and fed our family.

But when Beth and I began planning for a family, we did our research. Before we even considered kids, Beth gave up even the occasional drink she enjoyed.

FAS is not just an alcohol problem and not just a medical problem. It's a deep, penetrating social problem that spills into education, criminal justice and health care.

It's been suggested that well more than half of all prison inmates suffer from FAS.

Lost in a world that their out-of-sync brain can't accommodate; they can easily fall into a pattern of petty crime and never-ending abuse.

They are easily drawn into a life of crime by beguiling companions-they're lonely, accommodating, willing to go along, easy to catch. But the reason FAS is called an invisible handicap is that many children and adults suffer to lesser degrees

They're labeled "slow," "rowdy," "fidgety" or "lazy." They don't want to be that way-they've got holes in their brain from Moms' "one more for the road."

Women with a regular drinking habit tragically tend to continue the pattern and have multiple children with varying degrees of FAS.

Women with partners who drink tend to drink, to continue to drink during pregnancy and drink more.

This is not about blame. It's about education. It's about changing lives. It's about changing the way we think about alcohol and its impact on every aspect of our lives, and more importantly the lives of those precious infants who don't get to decide for themselves.

We know and recognize Alaska has an alcohol problem. But it need not be a curse on our children's future.

Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly, advertising director of the Juneau Empire and regional advertising director for Morris Communications / Alaska. Email him at llee.leschper@juneauempire.com.


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