Millions of Women at Risk for Alcohol-Exposed Pregnancies

Marcia Frellick

February 02, 2016

An estimated 3.3 million women aged between 15 and 44 years in the United States are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking and not using birth control, according to the latest Vital Signs report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Alcohol use during pregnancy can cause physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that can last a lifetime. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are completely preventable, yet the CDC puts the number of FASD births in the US at between 2% and 5%.

In a teleconference with reporters Tuesday, CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, MD, said, "Today's report found that three in four women who want to get pregnant as soon as possible are drinking alcohol."

Additionally, half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned. Even if they are planned, Dr Schuchat says, women may not know they are pregnant 4 to 6 weeks into the pregnancy and may continue drinking. Alcohol can negatively affect a fetus even in the first few weeks.

As previously reported in Medscape Medical News, the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated in a report in October that no amount of alcohol in any trimester is safe.

Authors said in the report: "Specifically, first trimester drinking (vs no drinking) produces 12 times the odds of giving birth to a child with FASD, first and second trimester drinking increases FASD odds 61 times, and drinking in all trimesters increases FASD odds 65 times."

Providers Play Important Role

Dr Schuchat recommends that healthcare providers conduct routine screening and counseling for all patients around alcohol use, especially to identify women at risk during fertile years.

"This takes about 6 to 15 minutes," she said, and questions can be asked by a doctor or a nurse. "In a busy practice, minutes are precious but this is one of those interventions that is effective and cost effective and easy to apply."

Data from the most recent report come from the CDC's 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth.

Dr Schuchat said that unintentional fetal alcohol exposure was particularly high for women aged 25 to 29 years and among married women or those who are cohabiting, as opposed to single or divorced women. They found no significant differences among races or ethnicities.

Dr Schuchat summarizes her advice to women: "Stop drinking alcohol if you are trying to get pregnant or could get pregnant. Ask your partner, family and friends to support your choice not to drink during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant."

A much lower number of women drink when they know they are pregnant — about 10%, according to the latest data, Dr Schuchat told reporters.


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