Purchase photos

Groups emphasize risks of alcohol during pregnancy





A community group is stepping up its efforts to reach expectant mothers with a simple message: Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is not worth the risk.

An estimated 40,000 babies are born in the U.S. each year with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which can range from learning and behavioral problems to significant organ damage and facial deformities.

"We want to help mothers become more aware of the lifelong impact a choice can make," said Elaine Rupp, a Healthy Start program home visitor based in Hays. "We make choices every day, but some of those can have domino effects later on."

The message continues to be a focus of the Hays Interagency Coordinating Council prenatal committee, and Brenda Vitztum, a social service coordinator for infants and toddlers at Hays Area Children's Center, will earn certification in November to begin hosting community training events focused on the topic.

While no numbers were available specifically for Ellis County, federal data suggests approximately 18 percent of women drink during the first trimester of pregnancy. That number drops significantly in the second and third trimesters, to approximately 4 percent.

Alcohol use could be higher in the first trimester because nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and many women do not know they're pregnant within the first month.

If a mother has consumed alcohol before finding out about the baby, she should quit drinking immediately and talk to her doctor, Vitztum said.

"So often parents get their information from friends or family members, and they may have a friend or family member who says, 'Well, I drank during my pregnancy and my child's fine,' " Vitztum said. "And that very well might be. They may not have had effects, or maybe the effects are something they haven't seen yet. But that doesn't mean the next time they're pregnant, or their friends (will) have the same outcome."

Within the last year, several national media outlets reported on a study that indicated drinking small amounts of alcohol might not affect the baby's brain development. No study conclusively has proven, however, any amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy.

As a result, women should think twice before drinking if they suspect they could be pregnant, are trying to get pregnant or are having unprotected sex, Rupp said.

Fetal alcohol syndrome long has been associated with severe birth defects, which can include significant brain damage and physical deformities. The severe problems are relatively rare, affecting an estimated one child per 1,000 births, Vitztum said.

"We know there's more of the spectrum disorders that haven't presented itself right now, so we're looking at probably 10 times that amount that will eventually be coping with that in their lifetime," she said.

These "downstream dysfunctions" can include difficulties with learning, decision-making and behavior problems. The issues sometimes are recognized in childhood, but might be diagnosed as attention deficit disorder or other issues, Vitztum said.

Alcohol use during pregnancy also can affect each baby differently. Whatever cells were developing at the time of alcohol use can be negatively affected.