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Tuesday, 4 February, 2003, 00:02 GMT
Doctors 'miss' alcohol abuse babies
Edward Brooks
Edward, 14, shows signs of foetal alcohol syndrome

Doctors are failing to diagnose children who suffer developmental problems because their mothers drank whilst pregnant.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) - caused by binge drinking during pregnancy - can lead to behavioural problems and learning difficulties.

But Newsnight has uncovered evidence that often only the clearest cut cases are being diagnosed.

Many children born with less pronounced neurological damage are almost certainly going unnoticed.

John Brooks
Edward's adoptive father was first blamed by doctors
As more and more women are struggling with the effects of excessive alcohol consumption, it is a problem that is likely to get worse.

The percentage of women drinking above recommended levels has almost doubled in recent years.

John Brooks and his wife adopted Edward when he was five.

His biological mother was an alcoholic who died from liver failure.

Learning difficulties

Edward shows classic signs of foetal alcohol syndrome.

Not only does he have behavioural and learning difficulties, his physical development has been compromised.

Woman drinking
Binge drinking among young woman is thought to have made the problem worse
He has a snub nose, thin upper lip, small eyes and at 14 years old, he is just four feet two inches tall.

However, Edward has never officially been diagnosed as suffering from FAS.

His adopted family has uncovered medical evidence that his mother underwent rehabilitation several times to try to bring her alcoholism under control.

But she told doctors she was sober during pregnancy - and they believed her.

At one stage Edward's adoptive parents were even blamed for his failure to grow.

John Brooks said: "They made a big thing about his size, also that they thought he wasn't getting enough food. We were gutted.

No diagnosis

"Without a diagnosis, we've never been offered any treatment for Ed because you can't give somebody something without a diagnosis.

"Ed still doesn't sleep at night, either I or Josephine have to be awake to keep him safe.

"I've given up my business for Edward because I couldn't work and be up at night. It has been a struggle all the way."

Moira Plant, Alcohol and Health Research Centre, University of West England
FAS expert says a binge drinking culture is having an effect
A survey carried out by Newsnight suggests that the Brooks' story is by no means unusual.

A straw poll of 81 members of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Trust found a quarter took more than a year to get a diagnosis, while one in eight took more than three years.

It seems that the UK medical system is just not geared up to tackle the problem.

There are only a handful of FAS specialists, and statistics about the incidence of the condition are not logged.

Moira Plant, author of Women, Drinking & Pregnancy, said: "We have to take seriously the possibility that we now have a growing number of children born with alcohol related damage that is not being identified.

Selling children short

"This means that as they get older, the care they need is not there. We are selling them short, not helping them as much as we can."

Edward's mother was a long term alcoholic. Many of Britain's heavy weekend drinkers don't fall into that category, but they may still be seriously damaging their the development of their unborn child.

Moira Plant believes the health service needs to take the whole matter much more seriously.

We don't even, in some maternity hospitals, ask women how much they drink

FAS expert Moira Plant
"We don't even, in some maternity hospitals, ask women how much they drink.

"We will always ask them how much they smoke and very intimate questions about their sexual behaviour, diet and even finances.

"However, sometimes people in antenatal clinics say well women's drinking is a very personal thing."

See also:

18 Sep 02 | Health
16 Jan 02 | Health
27 Jan 00 | N Ireland
18 Jun 99 | Health
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