Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a diagnostic term for a neurodevelopmental disorder caused by exposure to alcohol before birth. The main effects from this exposure are to the brain but alcohol can also affect other parts of the body.

A diagnosis of FASD requires evidence of alcohol exposure before birth and severe impairment in at least three of ten specified domains of central nervous system structure or function. Not everyone who is exposed to alcohol before birth is able to be diagnosed with FASD, but they may still have impairments caused by alcohol.

People who have FASD, or suspected FASD, can experience complex physical, behavioural, learning and intellectual problems that persist throughout their lives. Impairment also varies between people depending on when and how much alcohol was consumed during the development of their brain and other parts of their bodies before they were born.

Although FASD is preventable, many pregnancies are unplanned and damage from alcohol exposure may happen before a woman knows she is pregnant and stops drinking alcohol.

The Ministry of Health advises to stop drinking alcohol if you could be pregnant, are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant. There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

There is no data on the prevalence of FASD in New Zealand, but international studies and expert opinion suggest that around 3 to 5 percent of people may be affected by the effects of alcohol exposure before birth. This implies that around 1800-3000 babies may be born with FASD each year in New Zealand.

What we’re doing

Taking Action on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: 2016–2019: An action plan was released in August 2016, based on submissions and consultation on Taking Action on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD): A discussion document in 2015.

The FASD Action Plan builds on a number of existing health and social sector initiatives aimed at preventing alcohol-related harm and supporting people with FASD, including education, awareness raising, research, advice, resource and tools to support community action and strengthening health and disability sector and other relevant sector agencies’ knowledge.

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