Many South African mothers-to-be remain unaware of the danger of drinking alcohol while pregnant, a social worker from the Saartjie Baartman Centre said on Monday.
"There is still a lot of awareness that needs to be done. Mothers don't know that if they are pregnant they should not be drinking," said Dorothea Gertse. "What is also scary is that it's difficult to convince them that it is a high risk."
Gertse works with abused women and children at the centre and has about seven years' experience dealing with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
The dangers of FASD
FASD refers to the pattern of permanent abnormalities or disorders that occur when a child is exposed to high levels of alcohol, a teratogen, in the womb.
It was not known how much alcohol resulted in these changes to the unborn child and it varied case by case. It was completely avoidable if no alcohol was taken during pregnancy.
The most severe in the spectrum was Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which Gertse said was easily identifiable by the facial features.
She said children with the syndrome had smaller eye openings, flattened cheekbones and a smaller head.
Affected babies usually had a very low birth weight and their development was delayed. Many suffered from epilepsy and liver, kidney and heart dysfunction.
Gertse said some mothers were not aware their child even had FAS, and called them "problem children".
"It is only once you question her about her pregnancy that she will then make the link. Our job is to then inform and educate her," she said.
When children with the syndrome reached school-going age, learning difficulties became apparent and children struggled to concentrate, socialise with others and remember things.
"The mom doesn't know what is wrong with the child and she neglects in getting the right help. This is a special needs child and certain things need to be put in place from birth."
Gertse said most of the mothers she had attended to were addicted to alcohol.
Mothers don't understand risks
"In these cases, you have to hold her hand in terms of speaking to her, try to reach her by explaining what will happen after the birth and how the responsibilities of having a FAS baby are even more overwhelming than a normal baby."
Monday is International Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day.
According to non-governmental organisation FASFacts, about 25,000 babies are born with FAS in South Africa every year, the highest reported number in the world.
FAS was reported to be as high as 12.2% in some areas in the country, compared to between 0.1 and 0.8% in the US.
According to the centre, rural areas in the Western Cape and towns in the Northern Cape, such as De Aar, were some of the hardest hit.
Prevalence of the disease was also high among pregnant teens in urban areas.
Gertse emphasised that FAS did not only affect people with alcohol addiction or those in lower social classes.
"Initiatives like World Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Day are vital in the fight against FAS, which is found in all races and across all socio-economic groups," she said.
The day is held each year at nine minutes past nine, on the ninth day of the ninth month, to draw attention to the fact that women should not drink alcohol for nine months, the normal gestation period.