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Govt accused of serving up a shandie

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The Federal Government has been accused of ripping more than half the promised $20 million out of a plan to tackle foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Assistant Health Minister Fiona Mash came under sustained attack in the Senate after she announced that $9.2 million had been committed to develop a national FASD Action Plan.

Senator Nash, who paid tribute to the work of Coalition backbencher Dr Sharman Stone in pushing for action on FASD, said the plan would “promote consistent messages though primary care providers about the risks of consuming alcohol during pregnancy…and continuing activities through awareness of the risk of FASD”.

Dr Stone said some Australian communities had the highest rates of FASD and FAS in the world, with many babies born with irreversible disabilities including cognitive impairment and physical, behavioural and learning disabilities.

“The culture of drinking is so deeply entrenched in Australia that it is often very hard for women to get the message that all they have to do is abstain from drinking…for the nine months of their pregnancy,” Dr Stone said. “That seems to me a very small price to pay to ensure your baby is not born with permanent brain damage and other physical consequences.”

The FASD Action Plan will include $4 million for the New Directions: Mother and Babies Services program, FASD research grants, and resources to help GPs and other health professionals to promote abstention from alcohol among pregnant women.

But Labor condemned the Government for stripping funds away from the effort to prevent FASD.

Shadow Health Minister Catherine King said in mid-2013 the previous Labor Government had allocated $20 million for the FASD Action Plan.

Ms King said the Government’s funding announcement was welcome, but called on Senator Nash to explain why the amount allocated had been halved.

The debate coincided with the release of research showing for the first time that babies born to mothers who drank excessively during pregnancy not only had impaired cognition and behavioural problems, but were also three times more likely to suffer gross motor skill abnormalities.

The Sydney University and George Institute study found that alcohol during pregnancy can harm the development of motor skills, leading to impairments with movement, balance and co-ordination.

The research found that exposure to just one drink a day of alcohol during pregnancy caused damage to the brain, peripheral nerves and neurotransmitters.

“Mums may come home and have a drink or two and think they’re fine, but the advice is that alcohol may cause harm and we don’t know the safe level,” study co-author and Sydney Medical School researcher Barbara Lucas told the Daily Telegraph.

The findings came amid evidence that 80 per cent of expectant mothers consumed at least some alcohol during their pregnancy, and around 20 per cent of health professionals were ignorant of official guidelines advising women to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy.

Launching a national campaign to encourage doctors and other health professionals to discuss the risks of drinking during pregnancy, Senator Nash said it was important that women be informed of the dangers “in a way which doesn’t cause distress or embarrassment, or that turns women away from wanting to receive further prenatal care”.

The nation’s Health ministers have also expressed concern about low rates of adoption of pregnancy warning labels by manufacturers of ready-to-drink alcohol products (often called alcopops).

The ministers resolved to continue to work with industry to ensure increased use of the label, particularly in alcopop packaging.  

Adrian Rollins