THE nation’s first comprehensive study of the impact of excessive drinking on unborn Aboriginal children has revealed devastating rates of intellectual disability.

Article by Russell Skelton Image SMH.The Age

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THE nation’s first comprehensive study of the impact of excessive drinking on  unborn Aboriginal children has revealed devastating rates of intellectual  disability.

The study, conducted in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, found that half  of babies there are born with disabilities from foetal alcohol spectrum  disorder.

The research, undertaken by the Lililwan Project, found that one in two  Aboriginal children attending school in the region’s Fitzroy Valley has the  disorder, a condition that ranges in severity from severe learning and  behavioural problems to acute intellectual impairment.

The study has stunned policymakers in Canberra and carries massive  implications for the Northern Territory and Queensland governments, which plan  to deregulate drinking in Aboriginal communities that had previously decided to  be ”dry”.

It also carries grave implications for the Gillard government’s ”Closing the  Gap” targets.

A survey of eight-year-old children and their mothers’ drinking patterns over  two years identified much higher rates of the disorder than previously thought,  and confirmed what experts have been claiming for years: that excessive alcohol  consumption is devastating indigenous communities throughout Australia.

According to experts who gave evidence to a federal parliamentary inquiry  into foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which will report later this month,  undiagnosed foetal brain damage is linked to autism, youth suicide, high rates  of indigenous incarceration, chronic unemployment and poor education outcomes in  Aboriginal communities.

Federal Liberal MP Sharman Stone, a member of the inquiry, said the rates of  alcohol foetal damage on unborn children in indigenous communities were possibly  the highest in the world. ”Australia lags behind the United States, Canada and  Poland in recognising and dealing with the problem,” Dr Stone said.

”We have a perfect storm occurring in both indigenous and non-indigenous  communities. The cheapest alcohol in the history of the country is being sold  from more outlets than ever before, combined with a culture of binge drinking  among young women and a public culture of acceptance.”

She said public health authorities should adopt a warning for pregnant women  who might consider drinking: ”None for nine months.”

Although the Lililwan study has not been made public, Fairfax understands it  has been made available to the federal government and to the parliamentary  inquiry. It will be published in the Medical Journal of  Australia this month.

There are 4500 people (80 per cent Aboriginal) living in the Fitzroy Valley –  the epicentre of much harmful alcohol abuse. There was a 95 per cent  participation rate by parents and children in the study. It examined all  children born in 2002-03 and living in the Fitzroy Valley.

Damage to the foetus caused by alcohol usually occurs in the first trimester  before a woman may know she is pregnant. In the most severe cases, victims can  experience total cognitive breakdown and memory loss – making learning  impossible – and take up high-risk behaviour including self-harm.

Dr Stone said it was extraordinary that after years of research the federal  government had come up with a diagnostics model for detecting the disorder but  there was no money available to trial it.

”[The disorder] is filling jails with young kids who break the law. It is a  drain on the health system and to police, and is linked to high incidence of  youth suicide and chronic unemployment.”

Dr Stone, a minister in the Howard government, criticised NT Chief Minister  Terry Mills and Queensland Premier Campbell Newman for opening up the issue of  drinking in indigenous communities when medical research had established beyond  doubt the massive damage done to the unborn by drinking mothers.

”We as a community owe it to the unborn children to minimise the damage that  will be done if we don’t act,” Dr Stone said. ”The fact is you can hide any  problem in an indigenous community under the claim that consultations are taking  place. But you have to ask who are those consultations with. Are they with the  men or the women?”

According to the medical journal The Lancet, the tipping point  for the Fitzroy Crossing community came in 2007 when there were 55 deaths,  including 13 suicides. Alcohol was a factor in most deaths. But when alcohol  restrictions were imposed the behaviour of many did not change, leading to the  conclusion that the disorder was rife.

Dr Stone said it was a mistake to view the disorder as an indigenous problem  because it affected all communities in Australia, and all governments had been  slow to act.

Poor labelling laws, the availability of cheap alcohol and a drinking culture  that said it was acceptable for pregnant women to have a glass of red each day  had created a massive public health problem, she said.

Dr Janet Woollard, chairwoman of a WA inquiry into the disorder, was shocked  by the study’s findings. She said 51 per cent of women continued to drink while  pregnant, indicating a major public education program was needed.