Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is more prevalent among some vulnerable populations, including orphans, inmates and Indigenous groups, according to a new Canadian-led study. The findings also reinforce the message that there is “no safe amount” of alcohol a pregnant woman can drink, researchers say.

The research, led by Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and published in the journal Addiction on Tuesday, covered nearly 70 studies across 17 countries and identified five subpopulations that were found to have 10 to 40 times higher prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) than the general population.

The disorder, which includes the more severe fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), disproportionally affects the following groups:

  • Children in care (including foster care, orphanages)
  • Correctional populations
  • Aboriginal populations
  • Special education populations
  • Specialized clinical populations (including psychiatric care, genetic clinics)

Though the results are not surprising, said lead study author Dr. Svetlana Popova, this is the first time FASD prevalence has been assessed on a global scale in susceptible sub-populations compared with the general population. The study presents evidence that FASD is a prevalent disorder that greatly increases the threat of long-term adversity. FASD, which occurs due to maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy, is seen throughout society regardless of socio-economic status or ethnicity. People with FASD have varying mental and physical difficulties and often face challenges later in life, including difficulties with substance abuse, mental health, the legal system, independent living and education.

“We have to decrease level of FASD prevalence,” said Popova, a senior scientist at CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, in an interview with CTVNews.ca. “In order to decrease FASD in general we need to better educate our population, including children and adolescents.”

Part of that education includes clearing up misconceptions, including the assumption that a glass of wine or a can of beer with dinner is not harmful to pregnant women.

“This is truly a myth,” said Popova, adding that while some studies say small amounts of alcohol are not harmful, others show that even small amounts can harm a fetus. “People are confused. There is no safe amount or safe type of alcohol or safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy or when planning to become pregnant. To be on the safe side, you should plan your pregnancy and do not drink alcohol two to three months before you are pregnant.”

It is estimated that there are over 400 disease conditions associated with FASD, an umbrella diagnosis that Popova and team said costs Canada billions of dollars annually. Though it was estimated that one per cent of the general population has FASD and costs about $1.8 billion annually, Popova estimates that the numbers are more like two to three per cent of the population, costing closer to $6 billion in related costs across health, child care, education and legal systems.