B y Linda de Caestecker and Jonathan Sher

CLAIMS of “fake news” have become rampant, particularly in America. The bigger problem here is one of misleading myths and half-truths about health that are neither innocent nor harmless. Such myths abound across Scotland in relation to alcohol and pregnancy. Nearly everyone “knows” it is not wise to drink during pregnancy. But there is little understanding about why consuming alcohol at any time during pregnancy is a dangerous risk. Many want to believe it is just “nanny state nonsense”.

Unfortunately, the risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is all too real and heartbreakingly serious. The key word is risk, not certainty. There are women who drink regularly while pregnant and deliver a healthy baby; just as there are babies whose lives have been permanently harmed by modest, occasional exposure to alcohol in the womb. Today, International FASD Day, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC)is launching a public health campaign to replace myths with facts about alcohol and pregnancy.

Ignoring a preventable danger is disrespectful to prospective parents. Hiding the truth is also irresponsible and unethical. Just as we expect road signs that warn about sharp curves, so too, we all are entitled to understand the risks involved in alcohol use during pregnancy. NHSGGC will provide the facts, even when the truth is less comfortable than the popular myths to which our society clings.

Our No Alcohol, No Alcohol Harm campaign is based upon local, national and international research showing there are numerous adverse developmental problems that can be caused by alcohol during pregnancy. The common feature in all cases of FASD is permanent damage to the baby’s brain and nervous system. There is no cure and no one can “outgrow’” fetal alcohol harm.

All alcohol not only passes easily through the placenta, but also remains in the blood, body and brain of the foetus for much longer, and with greater potential effect. A fetus cannot metabolise alcohol.

Fetal alcohol harm is the single biggest, and 100 per cent preventable, cause of learning disabilities and behavioural difficulties among children and adults in Scotland. This is the case, even though FASD often remains undiagnosed and under-reported. The most conservative estimate is that 500 babies born each year in Scotland have FASD. Therefore, at least 9,000 children and young people experience fetal alcohol harm.

Women deserve meaningful choices about both their drinking and their reproductive lives. That includes the choice to avoid pregnancy until they are alcohol-free and believe the time is right for them to start or enlarge a family. The NHS’s job is to help women, whenever and however we can, to stop drinking ahead of conception or to quit once pregnant.

There are two guaranteed ways to avoid fetal alcohol harm: Don’t drink while pregnant or don’t get pregnant while continuing to drink.

Men also have a powerful role to play in preventing fetal alcohol harm. At worst, men can be abusive towards women. That can lead to coercion resulting in women dealing with unintended pregnancies and unhealthy drinking behaviours. At best, men can be supportive partners helping to avoid FASD.

We want prospective parents to achieve the three goals they already want for themselves: a safe pregnancy, a thriving baby and a rewarding parenthood. Preventing FASD brings future mothers and fathers closer to reaching those goals. The challenge for all of us is act in ways that help them succeed.

Dr de Caestecker is the Director of Public Health for NHSGGC. Dr Sher is an Edinburgh-based independent consultant specialising in preconception health and primary prevention.