Alcohol, Pregnancy And FASD. How Pip Archer Could Help Thousands Of Families

Martin Butcher
Everyone with a child with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) will appreciate that there are some things we don’t talk about in public.

Everyone with a child with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) will appreciate that there are some things we don’t talk about in public.

Even with this blog and all the things we have discussed, there are family secrets we have kept.

There is something I haven’t shared until now, I’m an Archers addict. Listen to them every day without fail.

There, it’s out.

For going on 30 years I’ve being a regular follower of the world’s longest running soap opera, the every day story of country folk (a traditionalist I reject the new tagline, it’s too Eastendersish). A staple of radio in the UK since 1950.

But what’s the relevance to FASD? Why write about The Archers now.

Well, spoiler alert, fellow regulars will know that the subject of alcohol and pregnancy reared its head in the News Year’s Eve edition of the programme.

Pip’s pregnant, but Alice doesn’t know as it’s a secret because it was an accident. So Alice put some vodka in Pip’s mocktails. Pip was furious and let Alice know it, when she discovered the pregnancy, Alice was horrified at what she had done.

So far, so good. The writers have solidly entrenched the idea that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is a bad thing to do, something with negative consequences.

As yet, however, they haven’t said why. I’m would have hoped the topic of FASD would have been mentioned, and while disappointed it was not, perhaps it will be in coming episodes, or in the context of Adam and Ian’s surrogacy. The condition badly needs the kind of awareness raising that inclusion in an Archers’ storyline would bring.

FASD is thought to be as prevalent as autism, yet is much less well known.

Pip is aware of the danger, but probably not the details. She’s unlikely to have learned much about FASD at Borchester Green, as there is no mention of it in PSHE classes in the vast majority of schools. Girls are not taught that drinking in pregnancy, or while trying to get pregnant, risks harm to their foetus. Nor are boys taught this, or that they have a responsibility to support their partner in not drinking in pregnancy.

Even most GPs don’t know anything much about FASD, with only 31% telling a recent NOFAS UK poll that they had adequate training on the condition. It was left to NOFAS UK to provide information to over 16000 midwives, the people with primary responsibility for guiding women safely through pregnancy, as their regular training was inadequate.

There are no clear prevalence statistics for incidence of FASD in the UK, the government has promised studies for years without delivering. But informed estimates put the number of children born on the FASD spectrum at a minimum of around 7,750 per year, or around 150 per week! The real number is likely to be higher, even six or seven times higher, given that over 40% of women say they consumed alcohol during pregnancy, and one study suggests as many as 75% of children in the care system were exposed to alcohol in utero.

No-one, not even the world’s greatest experts, can look at a group of women and say whose child will be born with an FASD if they drink in pregnancy, and whose won’t. Environmental and genetic factors affect the outcome, as well as the consumption of alcohol. So, the Chief Medical Officers’ Guidance of 2016 says:

· If you are pregnant or think you could become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.

· Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink the greater the risk.

This advice is all the more important as studies are beginning to show that there is a risk of serious damage to the foetus at very low levels of drinking, and doctors are unable to demonstrate that any level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy is safe.

So, what is the risk to Pip’s baby from Alice’s irresponsible action? What is FASD?

In a nutshell, it’s life-long irreversible brain damage. Those with the condition can have learning disabilities, they all have executive and cognitive functioning deficits, frequently needing support to thrive in life. Social and developmental delays are common in childhood, with a typical child with FASD having the social, emotional and developmental age roughly half their chronological age. Adults with the condition say they catch up in late twenties or early thirties, although executive functioning problems remain. Some 428 physical conditions can co-exist with the intellectual disability. Our adopted son has fused vertebrae and can’t play contact sports. He was born with a non-functional right thumb. He, as many, is extremely small for his age, with microcephaly. Meltdowns, due to an inability to process sensory and other stimuli are common.

It’s not something anyone should risk.

Since Pip’s baby is not real, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for Ambridge to have a child with FASD as a character. We’d learn about Pip’s problems raising the child. The difficulties with friendships. The struggle to keep up with peers at school. Perhaps the switch to special school when mainstream became too much of a struggle. And so much more.

Education for prevention is essential, and for children with FASD an early diagnosis and a society which understands their condition is vital for them to overcome their challenges, and live healthy, successful lives. For people in the real world with the condition, the increased understanding a plotline in The Archers would bring could only help.

So, on behalf of our son, I hope The Archers goes down this route. It may just help a few people understand him, and help to prevent a few more children being born without his challenges.

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