Since I was first elected to Parliament, I have advocated for and strongly supported policies that will make a positive difference to the lives of my constituents, especially those that affect children.
Where this has been inspired or guided by the oftenchallenging life experiences of my constituents, I have developed a deep concern for their issues and a determination to help in any way that I can.
One such cause that has moved me is the seldom-publicised but extremely serious issue of young lives permanently blighted by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
Tragically, some children are permanently damaged as a consequence of their parents’ alcohol and drug use. Much of my knowledge of this issue arose from contact several years ago with my remarkable constituent, Shirley Winikerei, who has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of this significant health challenge, and that has led to my interest in the excellentwork of Alcohol Healthwatch and other agencies to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related harm in our communities.
It’s also why I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Taking Action on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) 2016-2019 initiative, which was launched in August this year by Associate Health Minister Hon. Peter Dunne. Its goal is to support those affected by FASD, and reduce the number of babies born with this preventable condition.
FASD is considered internationally to be a leading preventable cause of intellectual and developmental problems, with some researchers estimating that it occurs in one in 100 children. In New Zealand, around 570 children are born each year suffering from irreversible intellectual and physical disabilities caused by a mother’s use of alcohol before conception or during pregnancy.
An article published recently in the New Zealand Medical Journal by Dr Brian Easton and colleagues, entitled ‘Productivity Losses Associated with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in New Zealand’, estimated that FASD occurring in one in every one hundred live births would result in losses to New Zealand’s market productivity of between $49 million and $200 million each year.
The cost and impact of FASD on people’s lives, families, education, well-being and career, however, cannot be calculated.
We all want children to have the best possible start in life. The FASD Action Plan reflects not only how important this issue is, but a willingness across communities, sectors, industries and agencies to work together to make a difference.
FASD is avoidable. Therefore, the first priority has to be prevention. New Zealand research indicates that currently 50 percent of pregnancies are exposed to alcohol. Consistent messages regarding consumption of alcohol while pregnant, particularly from health professionals, is crucial.
FASD is not solely a concern for women of child-bearing age, it is an issue for all of us. Effective prevention goes far beyond simply encouraging women not to drink while pregnant.
Communities need to work together to create a context and culture that supports families and whānau to have healthy, alcohol-free pregnancies. We need to support people who choose not to drink, instead of informing them that ‘just one drink won’t hurt’ – as the reality is, we simply don’t know that one drink won’t hurt.
Every New Zealander needs to understand the risks of drinking during pregnancy and be able to access help if they need it,whilst recognising and addressing the wider social factors that play a role in our attitude to drinking.
The aim of the FASD Action Plan is not to stigmatise or judge women or families who have a problem with alcohol and drugs. It is about removing barriers and improving the accessibility and responsiveness of our services.
As part of our commitment to preventing FASD, the Government has allocated $12 million over the next four years to increase support to pregnant women and families with significant alcohol and drug issues and complex needs.
Our next priority is supporting those affected by this disorder. The 570 FASD-affected children currently estimated as born each year, could be the tip of the iceberg.
To achieve better data, an incidence study will be investigating the neurodevelopment of a representative cohort of children.
In New Zealand, as in many other countries, FASD often goes undetected. It may be mistaken for something else or may not be recognised at all.
This means training for frontline professionals, investing in diagnostic capacity and capability, and developing cross-agency pathways of care and support.
By becoming better informed, we can all help to overcome this worrying problem. The principles, priorities and actions in the FASD Action Plan provide a framework to join up efforts across sectors, organisations and communities to save every New Zealand baby from alcohol-induced disability.