Woman posing with several beer glasses
Alcohol impacts people and societies in different ways and is determined by the volume consumed, the pattern of drinking, as well as the quality of alcohol consumed.
It 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.
Women are not spared, especially those that are pregnant.
Health experts say heavy drinking during pregnancy for women can lead to spontaneous abortions or a range of disabilities know as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, of which foetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe.
Paediatricians and child specialist, Dr Calisto Mashumba, said foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) is an umbrella term used to describe the range of effects that can occur in an individual with pre-natal alcohol exposure and this is where foetal alcohol syndrome fall under.
“Children with this condition are born with characteristic physical and mental defects, including short stature, small head and brain,” he said.
He added that the effects can have life-long implications including physical, mental, behaviour, and/or learning issues.
Although the diseases are rampant elsewhere in Africa, health experts say cases of such disease are worryingly increasing in Zimbabwean health institutions.
Doctors say there is no cure as treatment is focused on mental health to manage the resulting life-long disabilities that include learning difficulties, behavioural problems, language, impaired memory and attention deficits.
Dr Mashumba, who is also a geneticist, said foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is the most common birth defect in South Africa, by far more common than Down’s syndrome and neural-tube defects combined.
In Zimbabwe he said most people affected with this condition are from higher social economic groups.
“We see an increasing number of children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders from middle and higher socio-economic groups coming to our private practice,” he said.
He adds that women should avoid alcohol especially spirits during the time they are carrying their babies because it has adverse health implications.
Although there are no immediate figures of those affected by foetal alcoholic syndrome, health professionals feel that there is need to gather scientific evidence to highlight the problem in the hope that Government decision-makers will fund and initiate prevention programmes.
“The exact number of children who have an FAS is difficult to determine. There is need to train medical and social services staff to develop prevention programmes and to raise public awareness,” said Dr Mashumba.
There are no reliable global prevalence figures, but a 2005 study estimated a global incidence of 0,97 per 1 000 live births based on research in the United States.
Studies show that poor nutrition, ill health, stress and tobacco use also influence the severity of the effects of heavy maternal drinking.
In the United States, the communities most affected are often impoverished, poorly educated and socially deprived
Foetal alcohol syndrome is seen as part of the wider problem of alcohol abuse that carries a huge overall burden of disability due to injuries, often from inter-personal violence, and disease.
As Dr Mashumba notes, the costs to society are high.
“Foetal alcohol syndrome is also an issue because affected children require special-needs schooling and other forms of specialised care. It really has knock-on effects,” he said.
But despite all measures that should be taken to avoid the prevalence of the condition, as long as alcohol is accessible, affordable and socially acceptable, prevention work will be an uphill struggle.
Given the addictive power of alcohol, some women still drink heavily during pregnancy despite receiving the right advice.