13 Jul 2012

'Alarming' rate of foetal alcohol syndrome

9:15 pm on 13 July 2012

Alcohol Healthwatch lobbyists say the Government has a huge responsibility to address what is being described as a big increase in the number of children with foetal alcohol syndrome.

Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills, says the number of children with the syndrome he's observed in his Hawke's Bay paediatric practice has exploded in the last five years.

Dr Wills says the effect of foetal alcohol syndrome terrifies him and parliament should look again at a minimum-price regime for alcohol sales.

Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams, says the appearent increase in foetal alcohol syndrone is clearly an indication of New Zealand's alcohol problem.

She says the government has a huge responsibility to address the problem.

The alcohol reform bill is currently making its way through parliament.

National Addiction centre director Professor Doug Sellman says as many as 3000 children a year may be born with foetal alcohol syndrome in New Zealand.

On Thursday Dr Wills made a submission to Parliament's health select committee describing a sharp rise in the number of children with signs of foetal alcohol syndrome and urging MPs to look again at a minimum price for alcohol.

Professor Sellman says that while 600 children are born with the syndrome every year in comparable countries, studies now show there could be two to five times that number in New Zealand.

He says evidence is showing the situation is worse in New Zealand due to the binge drinking culture.

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills says the sharp increase in the number of children with signs of foetal alcohol syndrome alarms him.

Dr Wills, a paediatrician, says and others in the profession are seeing a substantial increase in cases.

He told Morning Report the problem stems from women drinking in pregnancy, which he believes would be curbed by putting up the price of liquor.

Dr Wills says 40% of all pregnancies are unplanned, and these unplanned pregnancies are more likely to occur in younger and lower income groups.

Frightening people or telling them not to drink does not work, he says.

"We have a binge drinking culture, and a growing one among women in New Zealand," he says.

"What we know is the young and the poor in particular are very price sensitive, so putting a minimum pricing on alcohol has been clearly shown to reduce this type of drinking, particularly among the most vulnerable."

Dr Wills referred to ready-to-drink (RTD) alcohol mixes favoured by young women, saying alcohol should be treated with the same seriousness as cigarettes.

Foetal Alcohol Network lobbyists say there needs to be more money put towards educating doctors on how to recognise signs of foetal alcohol syndrome.

Foetal Alcohol Network coordinator Christine Rogan says a centre of excellence, aimed at educating medical practitioners and the community, would be a big step forward.

She says less alcohol in communities would have positive outcomes for all children.