A new report by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Canada provides the first-ever global estimates of the percentage of women who drink during pregnancy as well as estimates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) by country.
Worldwide, nearly 10 percent of women drink alcohol during pregnancy, with wide variations by country and region. In some countries, more than 45 percent of women consume alcohol during pregnancy. The five countries with the highest alcohol use in pregnancy were the following: Russia, United Kingdom, Denmark, Belarus, and Ireland.
Overall, nearly 15 per 10,000 people around the world are estimated to have FAS. As a region, Europe has a 2.6 higher prevalence of FAS than the global average. The lowest levels of drinking and FAS were found for the Eastern Mediterranean and South East Asia regions, as there are high rates of alcohol abstinence in these regions.
Although it is well-established that alcohol can damage any organ or system in the developing fetus, particularly the brain, not every woman who drinks while pregnant will have a child with FAS.
In fact, it’s still not known exactly what makes a fetus most susceptible, in terms of the amount or frequency of alcohol use, or timing of drinking during pregnancy. Other factors, such as genetics, stress, smoking, and nutrition also contribute to the risk of developing FAS.
“We estimated that one in 67 mothers who drink during pregnancy will deliver a child with FAS,” said lead author Dr. Svetlana Popova, senior scientist in CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research.
Popova notes that this figure is very conservative and does not include other types of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) that may occur from alcohol consumption during pregnancy, including partial FAS (pFAS) and Alcohol-related Neurodevelopmental Disorders (ARND).
“The safest thing to do is to completely abstain from alcohol during the entire pregnancy,” said Popova.
The study involved comprehensive literature reviews and statistical analyses to determine the estimates, which are intended to help countries plan public health initiatives and policies, such as FAS surveillance systems and educational efforts on the risks of alcohol use during pregnancy, the researchers note.
The predictive model that the researchers developed for this study could also be used to estimate the prevalence of other disease conditions, said Popova. Her team is currently extending this work to study the global scale of all FASDs. In fact, an earlier study by her team revealed that more than 400 disease conditions co-occur with FASD.
The report is published in The Lancet Global Health.