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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Damage Same Across Cultures

Friday April 20, 2001

By Emma Patten-Hitt, PhD

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The children of women who drink during pregnancy exhibit similar intellectual and physical problems no matter what their cultural background, a new study suggests.

Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause a range of birth defects collectively known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Symptoms include physical defects as well as problems with intellectual functioning, including lowered IQ, attention deficits and behavioral and emotional problems.

Researchers believe cultural differences may influence the development of intellectual functioning in children with FAS, but these influences have never been studied outside of Europe and North America. So, Dr. Piyadasa Kodituwakku of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and colleagues studied a group of children with FAS from the Western Cape Province in South Africa.

The environment in the South African community is different from that in the US, according to Kodituwakku. ``In South Africa, the majority of FAS children live with their biological parents,"" he said. ``In the West, however, many alcohol-affected children live in foster care or in adoptive homes.""

He also pointed out that in South Africa, the majority of alcohol-affected children are not labeled as ``learning-disabled"" or as having ``conduct disorder,"" as they sometimes are in the US.

Kodituwakku's team examined the intellectual development of 34 children with FAS and compared it to that of 34 healthy children. The two groups were made up of Afrikaans-speaking children of mixed ancestry.

The researchers found a significant difference in intellectual function between the FAS children and the healthy children. The main differences were in speech and hearing, performance (for example, putting together puzzles), practical reasoning, and eye and hand coordination, which, according to the researchers, are similar findings to those published in previous studies.

``It seems reasonable to conclude that ... findings on prenatal alcohol exposure can be generalized across ethnic-cultural boundaries,"" the researchers write in the April issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

``Fetal alcohol syndrome is a 100% preventable disability, and is not unique to a particular racial group,"" Kodituwakku told Reuters Health. ``International studies can make significant contributions to our understanding of this disorder.""

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 2001;25:557-562.

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