It may not be a term most people are familiar with but Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) affects a large number of children in Greater Manchester each year – causing a host of problems that will last their entire lives.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy brings specific risks, such as the baby being born early or with a low birth weight which increases the risks of childhood mortality, developmental problems, and poorer health in later life.
These children often have difficulties with speech, language, memory, attention, planning and decision-making. They are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with conditions including ADHD, autism and depression, and are at increased risk of having a disrupted education and having contact with children’s services and the criminal justice system.
The majority will not be formally or correctly diagnosed, and therefore not receive the support they need.
However, FASD is completely avoidable if a child is not exposed to alcohol in the womb. The official advice from the chief medical officer is clear – pregnant women, or those planning a pregnancy, should avoid drinking completely.
There is no safe amount or safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy.
That’s why we’re investing £1.6 million to address the harms of drinking alcohol during pregnancy through our new Alcohol Exposed Pregnancy pilot programme.
We need to challenge the long-standing myths that have been passed down from generation to generation to make sure that not only pregnant women but their partners, friends, family and any health and social care professionals they speak to are aware of the risks.
Ensuring everyone is well informed will help us all give unborn children the best start in life and give pregnant women the support they deserve.
I believe our new approach is up there with the best in the UK, and perhaps even the world.
Our pioneering package of support covers each of the key points of pregnancy – prior to conception, while pregnant, and after giving birth.
We recognise that there is a clear need for both increasing diagnosis of the conditions that can be caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy, and improving support for those affected.
But where we are really focusing is on prevention – reducing alcohol use prior to and during pregnancy so that the potential harm is prevented before it occurs.
This involves reaching out and engaging those people who are most at risk, such as those who are dependent on alcohol, who are more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy.
Our aim is that, together we will reduce drinking in pregnancy in Greater Manchester and ultimately eliminate new cases of FASD.
By doing so, we aim to become a world leader in not simply reducing and responding to the impacts of drinking alcohol during pregnancy but preventing them in the first place.
But establishing Greater Manchester as a world leader on this issue is the icing on the cake. It is for the families, communities and future generations of our city region that we are doing this.
We know from our wider Early Years ambitions that children who start school behind their peers are more likely to fall further behind than catch up. For those children set back firstly by a birth condition and secondly by a system which in too many cases lets them down, realising their full potential can be even harder.
This in turn fuels ongoing and deepening inequalities across generations, with those left behind unable to contribute to and benefit from our city region’s ever growing economic and social opportunities.
For thousands of our children, we therefore have a moral imperative to act.