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January is National Birth Defects Prevention month

Image of Margo Kerrigan Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H, Area Director

Indian Health Service California Area Office



January is National Birth Defects Prevention month and in 2013 the Indian Health Service/California Area Office (IHS/CAO) decided to increase awareness and discuss two preventable syndromes: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).  FASD and FAS are the most preventable causes of mental retardation (Mayo Clinic). FASD are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy.  The symptoms vary from child to child but the effects are irreversible.  Research confirms that the development of facial features, the heart, and other  major organs including bones and central nervous system usually occurs during the first trimester and mothers may not even know they are pregnant during this time.  It is not clear how much alcohol causes  FASD or FAS but experts believe no amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy.  As you may know, American Indian people have a much higher rate of alcoholism and have some of the highest rates of FASD and FAS in the country; some Tribes report the rates at 1.5 to 2.5 per 1,000 births (CDC, 2002).  What can we do to prevent FASD and FAS?  Actually, we can do a lot, and the first step is to increase awareness of these disorders and provide education within your community.  Below are physical characteristics and mental deficiencies associated with FASD and FAS:

  • Distinctive facial features, which include small eyes, thin upper lip, a short upturned nose and smooth skin between the nose and upper lip.
  • Deformities of limbs and joints.
  • Visual and or hearing problems.
  • Small head and small brain size.
  • Delayed development and learning disabilities.
  • Abnormal behavior such as hyperactivity, poor impulse control and extreme anxiety (Mayo Clinic).

There are a number of primary prevention activities that have decreased the disorder within the American Indian populations.  Education and awareness regarding FASD and FAS is number one and abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy should be the gold standard.  Other primary prevention strategies that have worked within American Indian communities are:

  • Build upon cultural strengths and participate in talking circles and ceremonies.
  • Implement educational programs and adopt “Pregnancy is sacred” campaign.
  • Provide non-judgmental counseling services for woman who are pregnant and continue to drink.    
  • Recommend early pregnancy testing for mothers who are drinking and believe they could be pregnant.

There is no cure or a specific treatment plan for FASD and FAS.  Primary prevention intervention is the most effective treatment option.  Early education about not drinking during childbearing years is critical.  However, if a woman becomes pregnant and is drinking, offer support and programs that suggests stopping for the remainder of her pregnancy.  There are numerous web-sites to obtain additional information about successful primary and secondary prevention programs.  For additional information:

Visit Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving  Additionally, contact your local Tribal and or Urban behavioral health and medical programs as they have information and support regarding FASD and FAS prevention.  FASD and FAS within the American Indian populations can be eradicated and communities should strive to end this mental health problem.  Today’s babies are tomorrow’s leaders.  

Please join the CAO/IHS to learn more about FASD and FAS, on January 9th at 10:00 am.  The GPRA screening improvement topic is FASD and FAS.  Below is the information for the Adobe Connect webinar: and the Call-in Number: 800-832-0736 Room Number: *5677206#.  We look forward to speaking with all of you then.


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