If you eliminated politics, the Zika virus would be a contender for the top story of 2016 so far. From travel warnings, mosquito habitat charts, CDC announcements, and special bulletins, it seems that the fear of this virus has placed America on high alert.
And why not? The image of a newborn baby with microcephaly (a small head size due to an underdeveloped brain) is heartbreaking. Just seeing a baby with that birth defect brings out fear that the child’s life will be a struggle and compassion for the parents having to raise a child with that condition. You are scared for pregnant women and what might happen to their unborn child if they are bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus.
According to the department of Health and Human Services, as of March 17 there were 450 confirmed cases of Zika in the United States — most of which were contracted when traveling outside the US.
To this end, President Obama has requested 1.8 billion from congress to combat the virus. There’s even a Zika summit planned by the White House in conjunction with the CDC for this month.
But there is a much bigger issue here. As Dr. Ira Chasnoff told me, “Where is the outrage over alcohol use in pregnancy that causes lots more brain damage and microcephaly than the Zika virus. That’s not saying Zika should not be addressed, but we’ve got to get people to understand that alcohol can do such damage.”
Like it or not, he’s right. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, or FASDs, is a much bigger threat than Zika. Look at the numbers.
There are over 40,000 cases of FASDs each year, making it the number one cause of preventable intellectual disability in the US.
It is also estimated that up to 5% of all babies born in the US have been affected by their mothers drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
Now that’s scary. A lot more scary than Zika.
I know these facts about FASDs because I have watched Moment to Moment: Teens Growing Up With FASDs, a film from NTI Upstream that features patients of Dr. Chasnoff who live with FASDs.
As a person in long-term recovery (just celebrated 5 years!) and an active advocate for recovery, I thought I had a good handle of the damage caused to society by alcohol. I was wrong.
“There are data, some published estimates on what it costs to raise a child with FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) to 18, and it is in the millions,” Dr. Chasnoff explained.
That’s the cost to raise a child with FAS. But you really can’t put a price tag on the damage alcohol does to a person is he or she is disabled as a result of FASDs.
And after watching Moment to Moment, I can see why the CDC made such a strong statement this year advising women to not drink alcohol if they are trying to get pregnant or are not using birth control. The risk of FASDs is great and real.
Moment to Moment showed me how complicated FASDs is through four cases, all teens, but each with a different diagnosis under FASD. And that is what makes FASD so dangerous — alcohol has different effects on the fetus based on when the prenatal exposure occurs.
We tend to think of the individual with the classic facial features symptomatic to FAS (small eye openings, short nose, flat midface, flat area between nose and mouth) as the person who suffers from FASD. But there is also PFAS (Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), ARND (Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder) and neurodevelopmental disorder with fetal alcohol exposure. Individuals with the latter conditions do not have the facial features but do have severe developmental disabilities.
What makes it so hard to fathom is that we will never know exactly how much alcohol it takes to causes these disabilities, or when the alcohol was consumed in pregnancy, because there will never be a clinical trial to figure it out. It would be unethical.
But counter to Zika, the risk of FASD is one that America views as infringing on a woman’s individual liberties rather than protecting the health of your baby. It’s OK to suggest a woman who is trying to become pregnant should not travel to specific countries, but not OK to suggest that she not drink alcohol.
As Dr. Chasnoff related, “The CDC came out with a warning that women having unprotected sex shouldn’t drink. There has been a real blowback from that. There was an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune that’s said it’s a woman’s right to choose whether she want to drink or not and federal agencies shouldn’t make them feel guilty. People love alcohol and they’re just not going to listen to science.”
So what will people listen too? The CDC should have had some help from Dr. Chasnoff when making the announcement about FASD.
“The only way we are going to see change is through things like the film (Moment to Moment). When people see the real life children that are affected, it changes attitudes,” Dr. Chasnoff asserts.
“Just presenting scientific information you don’t change social policy. I work with my son who graduated from USC film school, we formed a company to put out films and books. We use the scientific basis and then use human stories — the kids in the film are actually patients of mine. We take science and translate it into the kind of information that will affect people.”
If your life is touched by a person living with any of the developmental disabilities attributed to FASDs, I highly encourage you to view Moment to Moment. Watch it, then share it with the schools, employers, police department, and everyone who comes into contact with that person’s life. It promotes understanding in a way that previous material on the subject do not.
If the CDC could take this same approach FASDs, maybe that 1.8 billion in emergency spending the White House is appropriating would go towards the 40,000 children in the US affected this year by FASDs. And not the one confirmed case of microcephaly due to Zika reported outside Brazil as of April 3.