International Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Day

09 September 2010

Address by the Premier of the Northern Cape, Ms Hazel Jenkins, on the occasion of the International Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Day held in Upington.

It is an honour for me to address this important occasion, namely, the International Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day, which is an important day on the international calendar that is aimed to raise awareness and highlight the seriousness and devastating effects of this health problem.

FAS, as it is commonly known, is a severe medical condition caused by the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy that requires preventative action by our government and our communities at large if we wish to turn the tide.

May I take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to the organisers of Fasfacts for their laudable efforts by ensuring that the message is sent out loud and clear – which says – DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOL DURING PREGNANCY. I REPEAT: DO NOT CONSUME ALCOHOL DURING PREGNANCY.

It is also pleasing to see that you have developed creative strategies to engage our young people in sports to develop their talents, innovative abilities to ensure that they live active and fulfilling lives. We are conscious of the fact that sport has the potential to help our young people to steer clear of bad habits, including alcohol consumption.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no doubt that the impact of FAS on victims, families and communities are overwhelming and unbearable. The abuse of alcohol in particular does not only negatively impact on the well-being of the individuals consuming them, but distorts society and leads to other grave social ills such as crime, rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, poor health, low success rates in education, sports, work, etc.

The society we are living in experiences serious social ills; these are mainly interlinked and attributable to irresponsible consumption of alcohol.

As government we are surely prioritizing this serious health problem, which has been neglected for far too long and which detrimentally affects families and communities.

Through our healthy lifestyle programme, we want to ensure that every pregnancy and delivery is a safe and an enjoyable experience. We are emphasising the need to care for the health of babies before and after birth to ensure that they have a healthy start to life.

The health of women and children is an important indicator in the world's effort to meet the Millennium Development Goals relating to health.

We are extremely delighted to join hands with civil society organisations, non Governmental Organisations, community based organisations and the private sector to pool our efforts and resources together to deal with this serious health problem.

This gathering demonstrates the extent to which communities are beginning to recognise the magnitude of the problem and the commitment to respond to it vigorously and decisively.

Programme Director, we are extremely concerned about the major challenge posed by the consumption of alcohol on the health of women and children, particularly with regard to the number of children affected by foetal alcohol syndrome in our country.

Research has shown that South Africa has among the highest prevalence of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in the world. This medical disorder is defined as a pattern of mental and physical defects which develop in some unborn babies when their mothers drink "too much" alcohol during pregnancy. Even small quantities of alcohol, however, may have adverse effects on a developing child. The prudent medical advice for pregnant women is that they should not drink any alcohol at all during pregnancy.

Alcohol is toxic and its effects on the foetus should not be underestimated. The Institute of Medicine’s 1996 Report to US Congress claimed: “Of all the substances of abuse, including heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, alcohol produces by far the most serious neurobehavioral effects in the foetus.”

De Aar in the Northern Cape Province, a poverty-stricken town with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, is plagued by the tragic and detrimental effects of alcohol on babies. In 2009, South Africa’s Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, stated that studies conducted between 1997 and 2001 showed that De Aar was the worst affected of the South African communities where FAS is rife. “De Aar revealed a prevalence of 103 per 1000 (10.3 per cent), which makes it the most heavily-affected community with FAS thus far investigated in South Africa,” says Motsoaledi.

The National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted in 2002, found that the national prevalence for school learners who had consumed alcohol was 49.1 %, whereas in the Northern Cape it stood at an alarming rate of 71.5 % {26 percent more than the national average}.

This study was followed in 2006 by another study for the Siyanda area, primarily for the increase risk in that particular area, which is caused by the Wine Production and Grape Farming.

What we found from that study showed that 23% of the respondents acknowledged to having an alcohol problem and 14% indicated that they were abusing illegal drugs.

Furthermore to this is that 33% of all people admitted to having started drinking when they were younger than 16 years.
Both of these studies showed that Alcohol has a causal relationship with amongst others:
Child Abuse and Neglect
Risky Sexual Behavior
Crime; and
Delinquency

In following up on one of the causal factors of suicide within the province, it is evident that the depression experienced by 14% of the respondents is due to alcohol abuse in households.

The repercussions of alcohol abuse can take many beastly forms which may leave some with life-long scars, in some cases this is experienced even before children are born.

Programme Director, the problem of alcohol abuse was also compounded by some farmers who had introduced the “Dop System” on farms in the Province as a form of remuneration to the farm workers for their labour.

The “Dop System” was to exploit farm workers by supplying them with wine as a means to compensate them for services rendered. As a result of this lowest form of ill-treatment many farm workers became addicted by the abuse of alcohol and have, in turn, become hard-core alcoholics.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in Working Towards a Better Future and Better Tomorrow, we affirmed that priority must be given to improving the health and social well being of South Africans affected by this syndrome. We recognized that we must invest in early childhood development and support the needs of mothers and families. These are critical steps in working to address the problem of FAS.

We are also encouraged by some of the alcohol producing companies for their constructive role in educating people about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.

Alcohol companies have also realised their responsibility to educate the public about the effects of alcohol abuse and drinking during pregnancy. We would also like to thank the South African Breweries (SAB) for their involvement in driving such campaigns. Although FAS is incurable and is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation in the world, however it must be remembered that it is 100 per cent preventable – as long as pregnant women do not drink alcohol.

If South African communities are to turn the tide on this disorder, awareness and prevention programmes are crucial. In today’s world there is an increased access to health services both in terms of availability of health facilities in various communities and free health services for pregnant women.

We do not see the reason why we cannot enhance this significant health programme.

Ladies and gentlemen, for the sake of the health of women and children, the Department of Health is moving ahead with efforts to ensure that warning labels are put on the containers of alcohol products. These warnings are aimed at raising public awareness about the negative health and social effects of alcohol, including the risk of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Let us all join hands in an effort to help build awareness and to communicate these important messages to all our people throughout the province.
We must work hard to concientise our people about the devastating impact it has in our communities and thereby remove the stigma that is associated with the Northern Cape of having the highest Foetal Alcohol Syndrome rate in the country.

The solemn pledge that we are making here today is that we won’t rest until we have cleansed this region and the rest of the province off of alcohol misuse and abuse.

I thank you
Baie Dankie

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