By Dr Cory Couillard
ALCOHOL impacts people and societies in different ways and is determined by the volume of alcohol consumed, the pattern of drinking, and, on rare occasions, the quality of alcohol consumed. Alcohol is a psychoactive substance and its harmful use is known to have dependence-producing properties and cause more than 200 diseases among drinkers as well as devastating effects to innocent victims such as unborn children.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, preterm birth, still birth, spontaneous abortion, and contribute to a range of disabilities known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). FASD is an umbrella term referring to an array of conditions involving impairments of the growth and development of the central nervous system caused by alcohol intake during pregnancy.
At the most severe end of this spectrum is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a leading preventable cause of mental impairment in many countries. This is part of the evidence supporting mandatory health warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers, including information for all pregnant women on the impact of alcohol on the foetus or unborn baby.
FAS-related impairment is severe, permanent and associated with substantial health care costs. There is no cure for FAS and treatment is focused on managing learning difficulties, behavioural problems, language, delayed social or motor skills, impaired memory and attention deficits.
In order to support countries address the harmful use of alcohol in the African Region, WHO has produced a strategy aimed at contributing to the prevention and reduction of harmful use of alcohol in the African Region. Implementation of this strategy will provide a clear understanding of the adverse health effects of alcohol and allow it to be placed high in national health, social and development agendas.
“There are no reliable FASD prevalence figures in the African Region but a government-led strategy including legislation, regulation, protection of human rights, mobilization of communities, and education of the public is needed. Strategic information, surveillance and research will counter the harmful use of alcohol and improve the health sector response to ensure universal health coverage reaches all individuals equitably,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Many relevant decision-making authorities need to be involved in the formulation and implementation of alcohol policies, such as ministries of health and other governmental bodies, including taxation agencies.
“Successful implementation of a national action plan requires sustained political commitment and legislation towards the reduction of harmful use of alcohol, effective coordination, sustainable funding and appropriate engagement of subnational governments as well as civil society and other relevant authorities and stakeholders,” said Dr Andrea Bruni, Alcohol and Substance Abuse Technical Officer at the WHO Regional Office for Africa.
WHO is prepared and committed to continue to monitor, report and disseminate the best available knowledge on alcohol consumption, alcohol-related harm, and policy responses at all levels. These are key to monitoring progress in implementing the global strategy and regional action plans to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.
Writer is the Communications Officer, WHO Regional Office for Africa
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Alcohol during pregnancy harmful to the unborn child