House debates

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

7:47 pm

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak about the history of Australia in relation to our drinking of alcohol. We had a currency of rum in the 1700s and ever since then we have had quite an affection for alcohol. Raising a glass is what we do at a time of celebration. In fact, about 84 per cent of people over 14 in Australia say they drink alcohol. Nine per cent say they drink daily and 41 per cent say they drink at least weekly. Most of that drinking is responsible. In our country we have a lot of laws about drinking too much and driving and so on. But there is one group of Australians who should never raise a glass or drink at all—that is, pregnant women, or indeed women who are trying to become pregnant or think they may become pregnant.

The National Health and Medical Research Council’s guidelines are that, to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol, maternal alcohol consumption should be zero. The guidelines state that:

Maternal alcohol consumption can harm the developing fetus or breastfeeding baby.

                  …              …              …

A. For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option.

B. For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option.

Why is this? It is because of a condition called foetal alcohol syndrome. Sadly it is one of the few intellectual and physical handicaps that a baby may be born with which is, at this point in time, absolutely not able to be cured or reversed, but it is 100 per cent avoidable. When a woman is pregnant, the first three months is the most dangerous period for her foetus to be affected by alcohol consumption. Of course, for women who have an addiction to alcohol or who drink very heavily, the danger continues beyond that first three months.

The problem with foetal alcohol syndrome is that some children are born with physical abnormalities related to the condition and along with those most commonly go intellectual handicap, but some babies are born who do not have the physical characteristics so it takes some time for the diagnosis to be made. The conditions that are associated with foetal alcohol syndrome include: joint abnormalities, cardiac anomalies, developmental delay, mental retardation, problems with the central nervous system, trouble remembering and or learning, vision or hearing impairment and behavioural problems.

I have to say that this is not a problem just of Indigenous communities or indeed Indigenous Australians. Foetal alcohol syndrome affects any community that has heavy drinking and restricted access to gynaecologists and obstetricians. Some courageous Indigenous women in Fitzroy Crossing have invited specialists to come into their community to do one of the first incidence studies of foetal alcohol syndrome in Australia. They as Indigenous women are tackling this problem head on. It is one that they have seen affecting their children for several generations. It is not though, as I said, a condition that appears only in Indigenous communities; it is a condition which occurs right across our socioeconomic strata in Australia. The sad thing is that, while we spend a lot of time making sure that people understand the dangers of tobacco smoking during pregnancy—there is labelling on packages, or labels are removed from tobacco to make it appear less attractive—we are not as a society moving towards labelling on alcohol to say this is a dangerous substance to consume if you are pregnant. Other countries have made sure that alcohol is labelled like that.

There is another serious problem. A postal survey of Western Australian health professionals, which did not include paediatricians, found that these health professionals had a limited knowledge of the diagnostic features of foetal alcohol syndrome and that less than half of them asked women about their alcohol use during pregnancy. This is a serious problem for our society. We have to do better. I certainly will do all I can to make sure that women in Australia understand the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. We have to make sure that our health service professionals are fully informed about the dangers and that our community is supportive of women who are alcohol dependent and who become pregnant, to help them reduce their dependency during their pregnancy to minimise the harm that might occur as a result of their alcohol consumption. We owe every newborn child in Australia the best possible chance to have a decent life. If you are born handicapped, this is a serious issue. It is a serious issue for all Australians. (Time expired)


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