Northern Territory ‘missing point’ on FASD treatment: group

The Northern Territory government is “completely missing the point” on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and dragging its feet in acting on its own report, an alcohol research group says.

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The government conducted an inquiry into the prevalence of FASD and what can be done to minimise and treat it in 2014, which was tabled in parliament in February 2015. Fourteen months later, it is yet to act on the 26 recommendations of its own report.

Last month in parliament, Health Minister John Elferink said he had mixed feelings about the report because it didn’t really touch on the issue of child protection, and whether that began at some point in utero.

He has previously suggested that pregnant problem drinkers could be locked up during their pregnancies to prevent them from harming their unborn child.

But Caterina Giorgi, policy and research director at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, says a punitive approach to dealing with FASD and potential pregnant drinkers “completely misses the point”.

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“The last thing we need is further stigma around this issue and pushing people away who need help,” she told AAP.

“The report said to the government some things they didn’t want to hear about alcohol, like ‘you need a plan, you need to look at alcohol use more generally in the community, you need to look at prevention’, and the government shied away from it because it hasn’t fit into its agenda of approaching alcohol with punitive measures.”

Mr Elferink also told the NT parliament last month there is no national diagnostic tool for screening children who may have FASD.

“It cannot be done, there is no diagnosis to be had,” he said.

But Ms Giorgi said a diagnostic tool would be finalised and health workers will begin using it from next month.

She said a federally-funded three-year plan on tackling FASD expires next year, and FARE is calling for it to be renewed, with an increased focus on the lived experience of people with FASD and their families and carers, and to coordinate different jurisdictions’ approaches.

FASD is currently not covered under the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Mr Elferink was not available to comment.

What is foetal alcohol spectrum disorder?FASD can be prevented by women not drinking, but once a child is born with FASD it has it for lifeNational guidelines recommend women don’t drink while pregnant as there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancyThe term covers conditions ranging from physical deformities to behavioural and emotional problems caused when a woman drinks during pregnancyIt can cause learning difficulties, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, organ damage, and poor consequential thinking and social relationshipsThose affected can end up dropping out of school, developing drug and alcohol problems, getting involved in crime, becoming homeless, living in poverty, being sexually victimised, and having their own children young and unplannedIt’s thought that about 1% of Australian babies are born with FASD, but it could be higher as many women don’t seek help because there’s nowhere to go or due to the stigmaWith early intervention and diagnosis, families can help their child manage the condition with support to live a closer to normal lifeOften women who drink during pregnancy are older and come from higher socio-economic backgrounds, who disregard the health guidelines because they think they are for disadvantaged women, or those who drink excessively.