Mums-to-be are playing 'Russian roulette' with alcohol
Many middle-class women are putting their unborn children at potential risk of brain disorders by ignoring warnings not to drink alcohol during pregnancy, a new report will reveal.
It comes as a leading expert on the disorders said he is seeing children with a range of problems which he links to their mothers' drinking including ADHD, autism and mood swings.
An estimated 700 Irish babies a year are being born with some form of mental or physical harm linked to their mothers' drinking while pregnant.
A new Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) report to be published in the coming months by the Department of Health will show that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is evident across all social groups, despite doctors warning of the clear dangers.
Previous research has shown well-educated women are more likely to drink alcohol during pregnancy, despite having had easier access to public health information.
Now, new research by the ESRI is expected to show this worrying pattern of drinking is spread across all socio-economic groups, posing a major challenge for health authorities.
The research is expected to reveal that middle class women are more like to drink during pregnancy – despite the perception they are more knowledgeable about the health risks involved than other socio-economic classes.
Dr Kieran O'Malley, a psychiatrist at the Charlemont Clinic in Dublin who has also worked in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, said: "Women who drink alcohol while pregnant are playing Russian roulette."
There are no official statistics for Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) in children but, based on international figures, they are seen in one in 100 live births with many children suffering behavioural and learning disabilities.
FASD is where "suicide was 30 years ago" in that the cases are not being officially counted, he added.
"I have seen seen hundreds of children referred to me in the last 25 years and see patients from around the country.
"I returned in 2006, having developed expertise in this area through practising and academic work in the United States.
"It is not notifiable so the extent of the condition is probably underestimated.
"However, children are being born and diagnosed with the disorder.
"There is still a huge denial around it. He added: "Mothers find it difficult to accept the truth about the risk of alcohol in pregnancy and that it could have led to brain injury to their child.
"But the problem affects all social groups.
"This condition is not about shame and blame. It is about the true toxicity of alcohol to the developing foetus during the whole of pregnancy.
"Ireland is a complicated society with a complex attitude to alcohol and high levels of binge drinking.
"The effects can include not just a short attention span but also problems with physical, neurological and emotional development as well as specific facial deformities."
The intellectual disabilities continue into adulthood.
And the prospects for children with learning disorders in Ireland were "good, bad and indifferent", he added, emphasising that the rearing environment, early diagnosis and management were key.
"The key message to women is that no amount of alcohol in pregnancy is safe," said Dr O'Malley.
Michelle Savage, of FASD Ireland – a group which seeks to promote awareness of the condition – said that the "State has a responsibility to put warnings on labels about the risks of drinking during preg- nancy".
This is expected to be included in a list of proposed measures to be examined as part of the Government's long-delayed memo on measures to tackle alcohol abuse including minimum pricing.
A spokeswoman for the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) said it was in favour of the introduction of unit information and pregnancy advice labels on pre-packaged alcohol products
"The industry has been attempting to work with the Government since 2007 to include unit and pregnancy information and responsible drinking massaging on pre-packaged alcohol products."