Want a pregnancy test with your prosecco? Head north to Alaska, where you’ll soon find test dispensers in bar bathrooms across the 49th state. It’s part of a public health program that aims to lower rates of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) using educational posters and other measures like this new preg-test initiative.
The reasoning behind the program: Women are more likely to binge drink in Alaska compared to the rest of the US, shows data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And fetal alcohol syndrome rates are roughly five-times higher in Alaska than in states like Colorado and New York, the CDC stats show.
“We know that drinking high quantities of alcohol, especially early in pregnancy, is associated with the development of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder,” explains Prachi Shah, M.D., a pediatrician and director of the University of Michigan’s Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Clinic. Shah says many cases of FAS occur when women who don’t know they’re pregnant drink heavily. And so giving those hard-partying Alaskan women a tool to help them spot their pregnancy early is a good idea, she adds.
Alcohol disrupts normal fetal development. And specialists refer to FAS as a “spectrum” because it comes in several forms, Shah explains.
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A person’s facial features form during the first 12 weeks in the womb, so it’s during this time that heavy drinking could lead to facial irregularities. (Shah defines “heavy” as five or more drinks in span of a few hours.)
But a baby’s brain develops throughout a woman’s pregnancy. That means exposure to alcohol at any stage could mess with a fetus’s proper neurological growth even if facial irregularities don’t occur, Shah says. Learning and behavior issues like poor concentration, impaired memory, and poor decision-making are some the cognitive problems linked to FAS, she adds.
While there’s some evidence that light drinking may not be dangerous, Shah says there’s not enough research into the subject of “safe” drinking levels to green light any alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
And regarding the Alaska health initiative? “I think the bottom line is women who are drinking and of child-bearing age may not be considering the fact that they’re pregnant,” Shah says. “If a woman knows, she can make smarter choices. And this program should help women acquire that knowledge.”