The federal government should toughen taxes on alcohol as part of a range of measures to combat long-term and hidden illnesses associated with drinking while pregnant, a child health expert says.
The call follows ABC airing a 4 Corners program on Monday night looking at the hidden harms of drinking while pregnant, with offspring facing a range of problems from behavioural to learning difficulties known collectively as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
Doctors on the program caution that Australia's heavy drinking culture overshadows the concerns about women drinking alcohol while pregnant.
Paediatrician and foetal alcohol research expert at the University of Sydney, Professor Elizabeth Elliott, told The Huffington Post Australia the problem is hidden in Australia, in part because of the reluctance of people to ask about or talk about alcoholism in pregnancy.
Another barrier is the fear of misdiagnosis of FASD, and so alternative diagnosis are given.
“The true prevalence is not known,” Prof Elliott said.
"Doctors and other health professionals are poorly informed about what is required to make the diagnoses.
Prof. Elliott, who chairs the Australian Government’s FASD Technical Network, said a multi-pronged approach is needed.
The FASD Technical Network is aiming to raise awareness among health professionals to help sufferers get the right kind of therapy and better alcohol education in schools.
It is also taking aim at the police and justice sector to help authorities understand that some people who present with a FASD should be properly assessed so they understand the legal process.
Preventative public health campaigns are also needed, and Professor Elliott praised recent lock-out efforts in Sydney’s King’s Cross and in Newcastle.
"But those are relatively ineffective in a society like ours where alcohol is cheaper than water and there are pubs open all day and all night,” she said.
“We really need to get a bit tougher on pricing, taxation and the availability of alcohol.”
She compared current Australian attitudes to smoking and drinking.
"My kids, the oldest is 25 and has never seen a cigarette advertisement,” she said.
“Whereas our kids are being bombarded with alcohol promotions in all the newspapers, alcohol advertisements, alcohol sponsorship of cricket…
Foetal alcohol syndrome was diagnosed 30 years ago but it is now known there is a whole spectrum of disorders.
While the disorders can range in type - from physical defects to mental ones -- foetuses exposed to alcohol in the 2nd and 3rd trimester can suffer brain damage resulting in development and learning disorders, but without physical features.
It's a disease that cuts across the community -- through economic and educational barriers, Prof. Elliott said, and it is more openly exposed in some sections of society than others.
"That's why it's quite a difficult thing and often hidden because people don't talk about alcohol, and they don't realise alcohol can cause damage to the brain without causing the physical features.
Among middle class women, for example, people are less likely to say ‘your child has a problem due to alcohol.’
“They are more likely to say your child has ADHD or something without either asking or identifying that alcohol might be contributory,” Prof Elliott said.