By Tshepiso Mabote *BSHD
Botswana’s covid-19 alcohol restrictions were met with fervent displeasure from the very beginning. Those who had wisely stocked up ran out or were at the brink of running out of alcohol at some point following the country wide lockdown. The limited access that followed did not appease those who, in banter, had chosen alcohol over stronger immune systems.
It is evident that even with the world going through a pandemic, alcohol abuse is rampant in the country. With no access to sources of alcohol, the country witnessed several arrests of those who had taken to brewing and selling intoxications illegally in their homes.
What is of concern is that even expectant mothers continue to drink during pregnancy. Women often ask their doctors if they can drink during pregnancy and play it down to having “just one”. Most medical practitioners however do advise against this as there is no safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. Nonetheless, this does not deter expectant mothers. In some exceptional cases, women may continue to drink during pregnancy because they are not aware that they are expecting. Unfortunately for them too, their children may be born with the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).
Maleshwane Mauco, a Self-employed, Board-certified Behavior Analyst, explains that the prevalence of FAS in Botswana is not documented well but cases are high. Often, Mauco says during assessments FAS is confused with Autism as some of the characteristics may be similar.
In a study called ‘Actual and predicted prevalence of alcohol consumption during pregnancy in the WHO African Region’ carried out by Svetlana Popova and others in 2016, between 4.4 and 7.1 percent of the population of pregnant women in Botswana drank during pregnancy. Drinking among expectant mothers in Botswana is common practice in rural areas and settlements such as Charles hill, New Xanagas and Gantsi to name a few areas where traditionally brewed beer is affordable and easily accessible. Such practices are not deliberately meant to harm the unborn child, but are a result of lack of awareness regarding the dangers of drinking alcohol while expecting.
This is not to say that the middle class and upper social groups have no apparent cases. The prevalence is rather more severe in the lower classes. Studies show that in rural areas, mothers have no access to proper maternal health care and information regarding FAS.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on the other hand continues to stress that drinking during pregnancy is extremely dangerous and can have permanent repercussions on the unborn baby. In 2014, WHO linked alcohol and drug abuse to miscarriage, preterm birth and still births. Weather a mother intentionally decides to drink, or was unaware of her pregnancy, the unborn baby is exposed to alcohol from the time of conception to birth through the umbilical cord. Consequently, FAS then presents itself in various ways like speech and language impairments, and attention deficit disorders depending on how much the mother drank during her pregnancy.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also suggests that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth defects that involve central nervous system impairment, behavioral disorders and intellectual development impairment which can often lead to difficulties in schooling and working.
“A child with FAS may have difficulty with math, reading and even speech delays,” says Bonolo Boitshwarelo-Gaba, a Special Education Teacher, at Loapi Study Center.
Sharing her sentiment, Mauco added that a child may also have poor reasoning and judgement skills, may have a hard time playing sports due to poor coordination, and may struggle with holding a scissors, using paint brushes or even coloring within the lines, among other difficulties.
According to a FAS, support group in Canada, the child may also throw tantrums, cry a lot and be violent because they are experiencing withdrawal symptoms as their bodies try to rid themselves of the alcohol in their system. Children of school going age may have behavior problems and may present hyperactivity in the classroom.
A 2008 journal entry titled ‘Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: A descriptive profile of adaptive function’ outlines that children with FAS may not understand boundaries set by their friends and peers and may often find themselves unpopular in the classroom. In terms of physical signs, a child with FAS may also suffer from heart, kidney, vision and hearing problems, and may have facial features that make him or her stand out.
That said, prevention is better than cure when it comes to FAS, therefore it is not amiss to assume that covid-19 alcohol restrictions may have saved a child’s future.
While mothers are encouraged not to drink during pregnancy, governments are encouraged to launch educational campaigns, and introduce screening and targeted interventions for women of childbearing age. The Botswana government has midwives and doctors who stress the dangers of FSA and encourage mothers not to drink during pregnancy, but more can be done.
For parents with children living with disabilities caused by FAS, equipping themselves with the necessary information will make it easy for them to assist children with their routine and help them to remember information while not overwhelming them. There is always hope.
*Tshepiso Mabote is the Vice Chairperson and Disability Coordinator for Botswana Society for Human Development (BSHD), an NGO that brings you this column. For more please like us of Facebook and visit us at: http://www.bshdngo.org/