Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Fetal alcohol harm bill up to $200m

Author of study assessing avoidable disorder's impact on GDP says new action plan may not go far enough
Babies exposed to alcohol before birth are at risk of developing the incurable, life-long condition. Photo / Getty Images
Babies exposed to alcohol before birth are at risk of developing the incurable, life-long condition. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand could be losing as much as $200 million in productivity to preventable fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a new study has found.

Days after the Government's launch of a new action plan to tackle the problem, an analysis published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal has estimated its enormous cost to the country.

Babies exposed to alcohol before birth are at risk of developing the incurable, life-long condition, which can cause permanent damage to the body and brain, resulting in heart defects, blindness, behavioural issues and intellectual disability.

The study authors point to its wider implications for the country, putting greater demand on health services, bringing poorer educational performance, lowering labour productivity and increasing pressure on the justice system.

The new study suggested about 0.1 per cent of the population -- or 4400 Kiwis -- were affected by fetal alcohol syndrome, the most severe form, while 0.9 per cent, or 39,900, suffered from general FASD conditions.

The research estimated that the labour force productivity loss due to FASD translated to an aggregate loss in 2013 of between $49 million to $200 million -- equivalent to 0.03 per cent and 0.09 per cent of the annual GDP.

The study concluded that an effective preventive programme which made the public aware of drinking alcohol during pregnancy and discouraged pregnant women from drinking would more than pay for itself in terms of productivity gains in the labour force.

There would be further gains from eased pressure on health and justice services, along with less stress on Kiwi families.

The new action plan, launched on Monday by Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne, prioritised a boost in access to support and services for women with alcohol and drug issues, more research and "co-ordinated and consistent" support for affected people and families.

The Government has set aside $12 million over four years for intensive alcohol and drug support for pregnant women, with an additional $1 million for frontline training and research.

But an author of the new study, economist Dr Brian Easton, questioned whether this would be enough to tackle the scale of the problem.

"Provided we think of this as a beginning, the sooner we begin to roll out a more comprehensive programme, the better."

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

• Covers a range of adverse effects on development when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy.

• Estimated to affect at least one in every 100 live births, though no research has confirmed the prevalence in New Zealand.

• Is linked to primary disabilities such as birth defects, cognitive impairment, and secondary disabilities such as mental health disorders, and educational and social difficulties.

Source: Fetal Alcohol Network NZ

- NZ Herald

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