Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term describing the range of physical, cognitive, behavioural and neurodevelopmental disabilities that can result from alcohol exposure during pregnancy.

There is no typical FASD profile, however, common issues may include intellectual and developmental disabilities, attention deficits, poor social understanding, hyperactivity and learning disabilities.

There is no NZ data on the prevalence of FASD, but international studies suggest that around 3% of births may be affected. This implies that about 30,000 children and young people in NZ may have an FASD, with around 1800 more born each year. The prevalence of FASD in middle-aged or older adults is unknown in NZ, but current estimates suggest a total of around 46,000 New Zealanders may be affected by FASD.

We know that issues for people with FASD and their families tend to increase as the child ages. People born with FASD are at an increased risk of child abuse and neglect, poor educational outcomes, developing mental health and substance abuse issues, coming into contact with the justice system, benefit dependence and premature mortality – including through suicide.

Estimates of the annual cost to the NZ Government per person with FASD vary, but a very conservative estimate would be $15,000. Assuming 30,000 children and young people have FASD, this suggests an annual cost of at least $450 million. On top of that, estimates of productivity loss to NZ due to morbidity and premature mortality from FASD range from $49 million to $200 million per year.

FASD and their consequences are preventable. If we can reduce the number of babies exposed to alcohol in the womb, we can reduce the number of people affected. Even after a disorder has developed, recognising and responding appropriately to a person with FASD can make a huge difference to that person’s life and improve the outcomes for everyone.

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 public health and social sector initiatives aimed at preventing alcohol-related harm, including education, awareness raising, research, advice, resource and tools to support community action and strengthening public health sector agencies knowledge in regard to creating healthy environments.

These initiatives are undertaken by a number of organisations including the Health Promotion Agency and public health units and non-governmental groups such as Alcohol Healthwatch.

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