CAPE TOWN – In an undisclosed tavern, a woman drinks with her boyfriend and some friends. Unbeknownst to her over a month ago she fell pregnant, she missed her period but is too scared to take a pregnancy test. Inside her body, the alcohol she is drinking (and will continue to drink throughout pregnancy) will ravage the developing brain of her baby.

Children born under the influence of liquor have what’s called Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), and it is an unspoken plague on South African Society. Today is International Awareness Day around Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), but do we care or do we even know anything about it?

In a recent study in Kimberley (Northern Cape), siz percent of Grade 1 learners were identified as suffering from FAS, in other regions such as the Western Cape, the percentages is higher. Recently in Port Elizabeth, 13 percent of children were said to be suffering from some form of FAS.

The Eastern Cape has the highest FAS rate, followed quickly by other provinces, indeed we have the unenviable position of being the worst country on the planet suffering from FAS. An estimated six million people have FAS in South Africa.

So how are these children affected?

Problems range from child to child but may include the following signs and symptoms; short height, low body weight, small head size, poor co-ordination, low IQ/intelligence, behavioural problems, hearing or eyesight issues. Additionally school learning problems, participation in high risk behaviours (drugs and alcohol thus re-enforcing a vicious cycle) and problems with the law are all common later on in life as well.

Children with FAS will often have a common physical appearance; smooth Philtrum (the joining of the upper lip), short nose and low nasal bridge, a thin upper lip and small eye openings are just some of the features.

Another question to rise is why we have such a high rate of FAS?

South Africa has a perfect storm of socio-economic problems that lead to this syndrome; due to the very high rate of unemployment (20 percent- 40 percent in different areas), many people are disenfranchised and drink to escape their problems. Teenagers and young adults are exposed to sex and alcohol at a very young age, the “sugar daddy” phenomenon certainly does not help either.

Three quarters of pregnancies in the country are unplanned, the lack of proper family planning whether due to under age sex, pressure from a boyfriend/husband for sex with no condoms, rape and a general patriarchal society when coupled with a high alcohol abuse rate means that for the foreseeable future we will be fighting this terrible socio-economic condition.

Government and civil society need to address these problems earnestly, many of these children are near unemployable adults and not only is that terrible for South African society, but even worse for the individuals affected.

As individuals and communities we have to change! We have to move away from the traditional hospital model to community based services. We have to change and re-build and restructure – we can’t keep doing what we have always done – it’s clearly not working.

We have to change first as individuals and adapt a new approach – I am part of the problem and I want to be part of the solution. So let me stop doing what I have done and do something different. Did you know that is only takes seven days to break a habit or seven days to form a new habit?

As individuals we have the ability to work together and change our community. It all starts with you and in your home.

Read, talk, ask and share knowledge and skills and help build the capacity of our children before they start school, don’t let them do what we have done – help them create a better future by sharing your mistakes with them and guiding them in new ways to create their own futures. Government too have to play their part – take a look at the outline of the Department of Health developed Business Plan 2030 and see how you can implement change and awareness now.

And……………..think before you drink!

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