The rate of babies born with health problems caused by fetal alcohol syndrome increased sixfold from 1979 through 1993, the government said Thursday.
Researchers don’t know whether the increase means improved diagnosis by doctors or whether more pregnant women are drinking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Since the CDC began tracking cases, the rate has jumped from one per 10,000 births in 1979 to 6.7 per 10,000 births in 1993. A total of 2,032 cases were reported among the 9.4 million births over the 15-year period.
Despite growing awareness that avoiding liquor prevents the syndrome, about one fifth of women continued to drink even after they learned they were pregnant, the CDC said in releasing a study of data compiled in 1988.
A federal study released last fall found no significant change in pregnant women’s drinking habits since 1988, said Louise Floyd, chief of the CDC’s Fetal Alcohol Syndrome prevention section.
“Clearly, too many babies are still being harmed by too much drinking during pregnancy,” Floyd said.
Symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome include mental retardation, abnormal facial features, central nervous system problems, behavioral difficulties and growth deficiencies.
Health officials do not know how much alcohol harms a fetus. Many doctors advocate no drinking at all during pregnancy, and there is evidence that even small levels of alcohol consumption can harm a fetus.
Fetal alcohol syndrome was first described in the mid-1970s. Aggressive education campaigns, including warnings on liquor bottles and better training for medical students, have not done enough to combat the problem, said Patti Munter, founder and president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
“This is completely preventable. There are so many things we don’t know the cause of. This is not one of them,” she said.
Sixty-one percent of all women used alcohol in 1981, according to a national study by the University of North Dakota. By 1991, that figure had dropped to 58 percent.
Alcohol consumption among women rose in the 1970s and then declined slightly in the 1980s, according to a report last month from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Women overall may be drinking less, but the report found that problem drinking among younger women of childbearing age may actually be increasing, NIAAA spokeswoman Ann Bradley said.
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