Research reveals estimate of UK children with FASD symptoms

By Hollie Ewers on 30 November 2018 Research Public Health Prevention Alcohol and pregnancy

Up to 17% of children in the UK could have symptoms consistent with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), claims research published today (30 November) inPreventive Medicine.

Researchers from the University of Bristol and Cardiff University worked with clinicians to assess a wide range of information on mothers’ drinking in pregnancy and studied the development of 13,495 children from Bristol’s Children of the 90s study.

A screening tool was applied and found that up to 79% of children in the sample were exposed to alcohol in pregnancy and that up to 17% screened positive for symptoms of FASD. 

A positive FASD screen was defined as problems with at least three different areas of learning or behaviour, with or without physical anomalies (growth deficiency and distinctive facial features).

FASD is considered to be a relatively hidden disability because most individuals with it do not show physical features. It is thought to be under-diagnosed with only one specialist clinic in England.

Researcher in epidemiology and alcohol-related outcomes at the University of Bristol Dr Cheryl McQuire led the research. She said: ‘The results are based on a screening tool, which is not the same as a formal diagnosis. Nevertheless, the high rates of prenatal alcohol use and FASD-relevant symptoms that we found in our study suggest that FASD is likely to be a significant public health concern in the UK.

She said these results are important because without UK estimates of FASD prevalence, awareness will remain low and children, teenagers and adults will continue to find it difficult to seek diagnosis and to access the support they may need.

Cheryl also highlighted that although the information on prenatal alcohol use was collected several years ago and guidance on drinking during pregnancy has since changed, rates of prenatal alcohol exposure in the UK have remained high. 

‘Recent estimates suggest that three quarters of women drink some alcohol during pregnancy, with one third at binge levels. This suggests that many individuals in our population today could also have symptoms of FASD,’ she said.

She added that it is important that women are made aware of the risks so that they can make an informed decision about drinking in pregnancy.

Access the research here.