Research reveals high rates of alcohol consumption among pregnant Irish women

Young women are known to binge drink, leaving them vulnerable to consuming large quantities of alcohol even before they know they are pregnant

 

Depending on the nature of the health behaviour, being at the top of a lifestyle league table is good or bad news. Recent research highlighted the latter: women in the Republic are, by some distance, top of the global league when it comes to drinking alcohol while pregnant. The study, published in Lancet Global Health, linked rates of drinking during pregnancy (as reported by mothers themselves) to rates of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a constellation of damaging effects brought about by exposure to alcohol in the womb.

In constructing a league table, researchers analysed more than 20,000 studies, including Irish research carried out between 1990 and 2011. Unfortunately Irish women came out on top, with 60 per cent of expectant mothers here drinking alcohol.

There was a significant prevalence gap to the next highest countries, which were Belarus, Denmark and the UK. All had rates in the region of 45 per cent of pregnant women who drank.

Although there are some limitations to the study, including the dated nature of some of the figures, the results are disturbing. Young Irish women are known to binge drink, leaving them vulnerable to consuming large quantities of alcohol even before they know that they are pregnant.

FAS is a leading cause of intellectual disability, birth defects and developmental disorders. It is a lifelong condition which may also result in secondary disabilities including academic failure, substance misuse, mental ill-health and contact with the law due to illegal behaviours.

With an estimated European prevalence of 37.4 cases per 10,000 population, the Canadian researchers calculated that the chance of delivering a child with FAS is one in 67 among mothers who drink while pregnant. The readiness of some expectant women to consume alcohol – a drug – contrasts with the care they take to avoid prescription drugs while pregnant. Clearly there are subtle reasons why some women knowingly drink during pregnancy. We need to urgently identify why this is so and design effective public health initiatives aimed at prevention.

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