A University of Otago researcher fears the soaring rates of alcohol purchases during lockdown may result in more babies being born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) next year.

Associate Professor Anita Gibbs says the neuro-disability impacts 3000 babies born in New Zealand annually, while there are tens of thousands of undiagnosed sufferers and she is concerned numbers may increase in 2021.

“During the lockdown, rates of alcohol purchases increased for many and there is a worrying chance that more children will be born next year with this disability because of the higher rates of drinking during the last three months in particular,” Associate Professor Anita Gibbs says.

A social worker who lectures in social work, sociology and criminology courses at Otago, Associate Professor Anita Gibbs has this year been awarded the 2020 Critic and Conscience of Society Award by the Gama Foundation for her tireless advocacy raising the profile of the neuro-disability in New Zealand. She has been researching FASD and raising awareness of the impacts of this disability since 2012.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a group of conditions that can occur in a person where alcohol has been consumed during pregnancy. Primarily, FASD is a lifelong brain injury that affects executive functioning, decision-making, emotional regulation and communication skills which can lead to behavioural, academic and social problems. In addition, some physical impacts like low birth weight, hearing and vision problems may occur.

“It is hard to do research that focuses on reducing the damage caused by pre-natal alcohol exposure; it is an unseen and unpopular issue,” she explains.

The Ministry of Health now recognises FASD as a disability alongside other neuro-disabilities like Autism, but it does not fund core disability support services to help families and children where FASD is diagnosed.

“Autism, a very similar disability can attract large sums of individualised funding, that those with FASD can not, and this is in spite of the fact that FASD is accepted as at least two to three times as prevalent as Autism,” Associate Professor Gibbs says.

“Because this disability is not currently formally recognised by our Government, it means that thousands of sufferers do not get any support but they end up using enormous amounts of our mental health, social welfare and corrections services.

“We need to see DHBs provide assessment and diagnosis services and then we need funded wraparound support services to assist families with children who have the disability from a much younger age than we currently see.”

Describing herself as a “unique package”, Associate Professor Gibbs runs training seminars about FASD for health professionals and the public and has first-hand experience of the disorder as the mother of two sons adopted from Russia who live with the disability.

“FASD is a complex social problem requiring multi-level solutions across all areas of justice, health, education, mental health and disability,” Associate Professor Gibbs explains.

“Solutions are possible but strategies are required and professionals and families must work in partnership to assist those with this unrecognised disability.

“Solutions include early diagnosis, wraparound services, appointment of qualified case managers and most importantly prevention activities to reduce drinking alcohol by those planning to become pregnant.”

The Critic and Conscience of Society award was established to encourage academic staff at New Zealand universities to act as the critic and conscience of society by providing the public with independent, expert commentary on issues affecting the New Zealand community and future generations. Recipients receive $50,000 to assist with research, conferences and other work-related expenses.

Associate Professor Gibbs says she is “completely stoked to be trusted as someone who could fulfil the role of critic and conscience of society”.

As a result of receiving the award, she plans to do a number of things including providing free seminars to health professionals, further training to Corrections staff, running caregiver support groups for Dunedin families and provide advice to the Ministry of Health on a new FASD action plan.

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