Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a continuum of alcohol-induced fetal malformations. The severe end of this spectrum is a specific pattern of malformations in the developing fetus termed fetal alcohol syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome in the United States is between 0.2 and 1.5 cases per 1,000 live births in the various regions of the country. The incidence of all fetal alcohol spectrum disorders is estimated to be several times higher still.
The actual mechanism of embryonic and fetal malformation due to maternal alcohol consumption is not known. It is thought that alcohol or its by-products may interfere with placental transfer of essential minerals and amino acids. The incidence of the fetal alcohol phenotype is directly related to the level of alcohol exposure. Approximately 30 percent of infants born to heavy drinkers have congenital anomalies compared to approximately 15 percent of those born to moderate drinkers.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is characterized by abnormal facial features, growth deficiency affecting length, weight, and head circumference, and central nervous system anomalies including developmental delay, mental retardation, and attention deficit disorder. The characteristic faces of the infant or child with fetal alcohol syndrome includes a thin upper lip, short palpebral fissures (the space between the margin of the eyelids), and an abnormal philtrum (the midline groove between the upper lip and the nose). Associated malformations that are not required for diagnosis but are, nonetheless, frequently seen include cardiac defects, particularly of the septum, and minor limb and joint anomalies.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of the leading causes of preventable birth defects and mental retardation. While affected children may benefit from special education initiatives and psychosocial support, there is no specific treatment for the syndrome. The syndrome is, however, 100 percent preventable by eliminating alcohol consumption during pregnancy. There is no known “safe” level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and damage may occur during any trimester. All healthcare professionals should educate women of childbearing age regarding the deleterious effects of alcohol on their growing child and women who are pregnant should be specifically counseled to stop consumption of alcohol and be given appropriate support to do so. It is important for health professionals to not limit preventative interventions solely to the mother but to also recognize the role of fathers and other family members in preventing the occurrence of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Alcohol Consumption; Birth Defects; Mental Retardation.
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