Rhys Evans, Director of ALCO-Safe
Global health organisations warn of the dangers of alcohol abuse during pregnancy, as drinking can cause a wide range of health problems that may continue well into adulthood. Despite doctor recommendations to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy, however, in South Africa drinking during pregnancy remains a problem. Employers can help to curb FASD by implementing comprehensive and holistic alcohol abuse programmes within their organisations, with a combination of effective education and strict policies, backed up by periodic testing for alcohol consumption.
In fact, statistics estimate that nearly one million adults and children suffer the on-going effects of maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The most well known of these is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a term that covers a range of issues, all of which are characterised by numerous behavioural and developmental problems. FASD is a lifelong illness, but is one that is entirely preventable by limiting or eliminating alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Many women in South Africa are unaware of the ill effects that their drinking has on their baby as a result of lack of education.
FASD is most frequently the result of heavy drinking or binge drinking every day throughout pregnancy, which is sadly a reality for many of those addicted to alcohol. The condition often produces infants with mental deficiencies as well as physical deformities, in particular of the head, face, limbs, heart and central nervous system. Even if a physical deformity is not evident, babies with FASD are likely to have problems in later life including vision, learning, behavioural and social issues.
In addition, it has been observed that sufferers of FASD generally lack the ability to make sound judgements, and they are more likely to suffer from mental disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression and anxiety. Further to this, FASD sufferers are more likely to develop a drinking problem of their own, perpetuating the cycle.
In South Africa, the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) has reported a steady increase in the occurrence of FASD in school-entry children. The 2001 prevalence rates indicated an alarming frequency of FAS at 8.8% in the Western Cape. Other studies in Gauteng have reported a commonness of 2.2% in Soweto, 1.2% in Lenasia and 3.7% in Westbury. Recent research also completed by the FARR in the Northern Cape revealed an increase of 10.2% in this area. FASD is clearly a significant problem, caused entirely by the abuse of alcohol, which effects on average one in every 50 South Africans.
Although alcohol abuse is often regarded as a social issue, the problem goes much further than this, having an on-going negative economic impact. It also affects employers of alcoholics, resulting in lack of productivity, potential health and safety violations, increased number of sick days and more. When adding pregnancy to the mix, and considering the dire consequences of drinking throughout a pregnancy, companies need to increase their efforts to assist to reduce these incidents.
This requires first and foremost for employers to implement comprehensive education programmes around the dangers of alcohol abuse, particularly while pregnant. In addition, policies should be implemented to ensure that employees are sober during working hours, and come to work sober. This not only helps to curb excessive consumption, it also makes the workplace safer for all employees, including pregnant women. These policies should be backed and enforced by regular testing for alcohol consumption using breathalyser equipment.
The effects of FASD are permanent and affect sufferers their entire lives, while also having a negative impact on the economy and communities. This entirely preventable condition can only be curbed by reducing maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and employees can play a significant role in this. Through education and comprehensive policies backed by regular testing, alcohol abuse in the workplace and at home can be significantly reduced. There are a variety of solutions available to suit a variety of needs that can curb alcohol use in the workplace and deliver significant benefits where the health of female employees is a crucial consideration.