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Doctors want to bring in alcohol tests for pregnant women

The aim of the tests would be to reduce instances of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders in Ireland.

Image: Shutterstock/Africa Studio

AN ORGANISATION REPRESENTING doctors in Ireland has voted in favour of introducing alcohol testing for women.

Dr Ann Hogan, former president of the Irish Medical Organisation which represents doctors in Ireland, told Newstalk Breakfast that the proposal was to reduce the incidents of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders in Ireland.

She explained that the tests would be easy to carry out and that it would help doctors intervene in cases where women were drinking during pregnancy.

“All pregnant women at every check up usually bring in a urine sample to test for a range of things, including protein and infection to ensure that they remain well during their pregnancy.

“It’s possible to also test for.. one of the metabolites of alcohol that would be present for up to 10 days after a bout of drinking.”

She said each person’s body processes alcohol differently depending on their genes, so the same level of alcohol could impact one woman’s pregnancy and have little to no effect on another pregnancy.

Dr Hogan said that when people are asked about how much they drink, there’s a tendency to say it’s less than the true amount.

“Women are getting mixed messages about drinking during pregnancy,” Hogan said. ”So what we want to do is do a test that will prove if they were drinking in the last few days or not.”

A) It gives a doctor an opportunity to make a brief intervention, which has proven to be effective to stop drinking during pregnancy, and b) it would tell you the true instance of what’s going on.

Hogan explained that foetal alcohol syndrome is “a particular set of facial deformities associated with brain damage”, which occurs if someone has been drinking heavily during a period in pregnancy when facial features are formed.

She said that symptoms can become apparent by the time they start school, or “certainly by the age of ten”.

Abnormal or challenging behaviour, being distracted easily and low IQ are some of the early signs of the disorder. Homelessness, run ins with Gardaí, and drug and alcohol addictions are signs of the syndrome in adult life.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the IMO said that the tests wouldn’t be mandatory and would fall under normal patient confidentiality restrictions and “be for the information of the pregnant woman herself”.

Although doctors can’t sanction a woman who has a high level of alcohol in their system, Hogan says evidence that they have been drinking will help massively in efforts to deter women from continuing to drink during pregnancy.

“Stopping drinking at any stage during pregnancy will reduce the risk… We don’t know what [alcohol] levels will cause a risk to the baby.”

Dr Mary O’Mahony, who proposed the motion at the AGM, said that around 80% of the Irish population drinks alcohol, and similar rates are evident in pregnancies.

“[A study] conducted in recent years in Cork University Maternity hospital showed that a similar percentage (82%) of women drank alcohol during their first pregnancy.

An alcohol free pregnancy will not be achieved by chance. It needs to be consciously planned. It needs to be supported by partners, family, friends.

She added that it was necessary to consult with women to confirm that they agree with being tested for alcohol as part of their check-ups during pregnancy.

The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) held an annual conference at the weekend in which the proposal on alcohol testing for pregnant women was passed.

First published at 4.15pm, updated at 5pm.

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