Foetal alcohol syndrome

The number of diagnosed cases of foetal alcohol syndrome in those born to women who drink during pregnancy has tripled since records of the debilitating condition were first kept 16 years ago. In 2012-2013 there were 252 diagnoses of the syndrome, which can leave victims severely mentally and physically impaired, compared with 89 in 1997-98. Cases are up 37% since 2009-2010.

"The World Health Organisation says that one in 100 people has foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which is the umbrella term used to describe the conditions that occur in people who have been diagnosed with some, but not all, of the symptoms of foetal alcohol syndromeā€¯. But there have been studies in Italy and the US that say that between 2% and 5% of the population is affected by this.

"And, remember, Britain is the number one binge-drinking country in Europe. The chances are we are closer to 5%, although we can't say that for sure because it is under-diagnosed and difficult to diagnose. Only 20% have the physical signs of this condition such as small, wide-set eye openings, flattened filtrum, thin upper lip, lower ears, different creases in the hands and there can be skeletal damage. Those are the physical things, but if you don't see them, then perhaps you don't ask the question."

Alcohol kills brain cells in developing foetuses by reducing their oxygen and nutrient intake. More than half of women drink more than the recommended daily amounts, and a quarter of those drink more than twice the recommended amounts. In 2002 some 200,000 women were admitted to NHS hospitals because of alcohol abuse. By 2010 the figure was 437,000.

Luciana Berger, the shadow public health minister, said the government should do more to highlight the consequences of heavy drinking and, in particular, during pregnancy.

The Department of Health advises that alcohol is to be avoided in pregnancy, while the independent National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence advises women to avoid alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy because of the risk of a miscarriage.

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