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Newslines Radio: Clear message - No grog while pregnant


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Nathan Ramsay

Associate Professor Ted Wilkes, National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee, WA
Scott Wilson, National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee, SA
Anne Russell, Russell Family Foetal Alcohol Disorders Association and Training Connections Australia
Adele Gibson, Anyinginyi Health, NT
Michelle Gray, Drug and Alcohol Office, WA

13 Aug 2012

PRESENTER: Hi, I’m Nathan Ramsay and you’re listening to Newslines Radio, a weekly program produced by the Australian Government on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

WILKES: We shouldn’t leave this as a legacy of what’s happened in this generation. Our failure to respond on this one will always haunt us.

PRESENTER: That’s Nyungar man, Associate Professor Ted Wilkes, chair of the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee.

This week we’re looking into what Ted and others have called a sleeping giant in Indigenous communities around Australia: Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or FASD.

What exactly is FASD? It’s the range of conditions an unborn baby may develop if his or her mother drinks alcohol while pregnant. These can include everything from behavioural disorders through to birth abnormalities.

While only rough data is available, organisations such as the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee believe that drinking alcohol during pregnancy and the accompanying impact on the unborn child is a big issue among Australia’s Indigenous population.

But the good news is FASD is 100 per cent preventable and work is underway to spread the “no grog while pregnant” message around Australia.

Larrakia man Scott Wilson is the deputy chair of the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee.

Scott told Newslines Radio that almost 50 per cent of Indigenous women drink while pregnant.

He said the effects on the unborn baby can include varying degrees of brain damage, with symptoms sometimes only appearing in later life, particularly at school.

WILSON: Because the whole thing with foetal alcohol, I’m not talking about the kids who are born with deformities that clearly you can pick up, most kids, it affects their intellect. And so what happens is when they go to school they might get a bit disruptive, because they need almost one-to-one teaching or reinforcement. Whereas if you’re a school teacher and you’ve got 30-40 kids in your classroom you don’t have the time to focus on one or two kids who might be a bit slower than the rest, and so those kids end up getting labelled as disruptive, get sent to behaviour management units, and then over time they tend to drift into juvenile crime.

PRESENTER: Scott’s message is simple: if expectant mothers don’t drink alcohol while pregnant, their child won’t be at risk of developing Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

But his message is not just directed at expectant mums.

WILSON: Most people say that well it’s just a female issue because they’re the ones who give birth, but unless the male is there supporting that woman who might make the choice not to drink for that period of time, if the partner’s still drinking it puts pressure on the female. So it needs to be recognition by men and young blokes out there that once it comes to pregnancy they should be supporting their partner by not drinking as well.

PRESENTER: It’s a point that Ted Wilkes agrees on.

WILKES: You’ve got to stop alcohol consumption during pregnancy and if the men who are also to blame in a sense don’t respond to this properly then we may not be able to get there. So it’s important for men and women to understand this is something you’ve got to do together.

Let me also say this is not unique to Aboriginal Australians. Alcohol doesn’t discriminate against Aboriginal people in that regard. If you’re a pregnant woman, whether you’re white or black, you are vulnerable to Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder simply on the fact that if you drink alcohol during your pregnancy you could be one of those people that may have influenced the quality of life of the human being that you’re carrying.

PRESENTER: Anne Russell works at the Russell Family Foetal Alcohol Disorders Association and Training Connections Australia, which delivers FASD awareness training across the country.

She knows the effects of FASD first-hand.

RUSSELL: I’m a recovering alcoholic, although it’s important to note that the majority of women who have children with FASD are social drinkers. I have two children with FASD. They’re adults now. At the time that I was pregnant with both of them, my doctor said that it was okay to have a few drinks and I did.

My oldest son was extremely affected when he was little. He didn’t meet his milestones, he didn’t thrive; he cried and cried and cried and cried. But now thankfully he’s able to live a normal life. My young son was fine until he reached puberty and then he got into drugs, sex, everything that you can imagine; got in trouble with the police, left school, couldn’t keep a job, just stole money, just everything.

There are a lot of failures in the person’s life because it’s largely an invisible disability so nobody knows that they’ve got it and so they’re expected to behave and to work and to live in a way that everybody else does and of course that doesn’t happen because their thought processes and their brain operates in a different way.

PRESENTER: Anne has devoted her life to increasing awareness of FASD.

RUSSELL: The issue about the Indigenous culture losing their oral history is a real concern because people with FASD have difficulty remembering the history and it would gradually get lost generation after generation. And also the Elders that we have at the moment who aren’t affected, after they die out, it’s likely the community will be led by Elders with FASD and that could pose a lot of difficulties if it’s not identified and support put into place.

PRESENTER: And it’s also advised not to drink alcohol while breastfeeding.

RUSSELL: The brain is growing throughout pregnancy and beyond, even after the baby is born. So anytime that alcohol is consumed when something is growing, that something will be affected. Certainly alcohol does go through the breast milk into the baby.


PRESENTER: You’re listening to Newslines Radio. Today, we’re talking about what drinking alcohol during a pregnancy means for an unborn baby.

From the time of planning a pregnancy right through to breastfeeding, experts say the best thing to do is avoid alcohol altogether, otherwise the baby runs the risk of developing Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

A number of communities around Australia are developing innovative ways of getting the “no grog while pregnant” message out there.

Here’s Adele Gibson, FASD project coordinator at Anyinginyi Health in Tennant Creek, Northern Territory.

GIBSON: The global average alcohol consumption per person per year is 5.1 litres. Australia is roughly double that, the national average. Alice Springs is roughly double the national average and Tennant Creek slightly exceeds that of Alice Springs. We are a hard drinking nation and we’re running out of excuses for not addressing FASD.

PRESENTER: One of Adele’s major projects has been coordinating the production of a FASD-inspired hip hop song and accompanying music video made by the students at Tenant Creek High School.

GIBSON: Well I’m actually a musician myself, not a hip hop musician! But I recognise music as being a great tool for delivering messages in a non-threatening way. And that’s been the whole point of what I do. It’s a negative message, it’s saying “don’t do something” and whenever you do that you’ve got to balance it or frame it in such a way that there’s a positive.

PRESENTER: Adele invited local Indigenous teenagers to write the song, which they called Strong Baby, Strong Life. Here’s a clip of the song now.

Music-Strong Baby Strong Life

PRESENTER: Adele said the song came together very quickly.

GIBSON: After a short talk about FASD, they generated a list of words and phrases and they just created this song. Then they rehearsed it, performed it, recorded it and then the next day we came back and did the video clip to it. So it was two days, they worked really hard those kids! And they had fun, as you can tell from the clip. And that’s six kids who will think twice before drinking during pregnancy when it comes time for them to start a family and they’re also kids who have taken the message back to their own families and communities. So the ripple effect is huge.

PRESENTER: The Drug and Alcohol Office in Western Australia is also using inventive ways to help prevent FASD in Indigenous communities. The Office’s Michelle Gray explains how they enlisted well-known Indigenous comedian Mary G to produce a media campaign on the topic.

GRAY: Prevention is extremely important. It’s one step in breaking the cycle. We did a radio campaign and we’ve also got a workforce development component which helps key workers in the Aboriginal medical services and through the midwives in the hospitals, actually getting the key messages to send out to the community.

We used Mary G as our spokesperson in that campaign. It was promoting that key message to Aboriginal people; women, men and communities that the safest thing to do during pregnancy, if you’re planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding is not to drink alcohol.

Mary G TV ad

YOUNG WOMAN: Even when I’m breast feeding.

MARY G: That’s right my girl. What’s wrong with you? This baby’s going to be a little, fat, healthy, gorgeous thing. So I can squeeze him, pinch him and kiss him.

There are new guidelines that say the safest thing to do is not to drink alcohol while you’re pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breast feeding. We can all protect children from alcohol.

YOUNG MAN 2: Beer?

YOUNG MAN: No thanks bruz. I’m doing what’s best for the baby and the missus so we’re not drinking.

MARY G: That’s good my boy. You can support your woman and keep your big muscles strong and healthy too.

Support your family and community and help our babies have a strong spirit for a strong future.

PRESENTER: That was Mary G in the Western Australian Drug and Alcohol Office’s latest television campaign.

And here’s Ted Wilkes with one final message.

WILKES: I’d like to say to all Indigenous Australians, this is a real issue for us all. We need to confront it and we need to, at the local levels and in our communities become aware of what it is. If you need information on it, go and seek that out from your health people. Get the solid information and then I would ask that both women and men use their wisdom together to find ways to diminish this impact.

PRESENTER: So remember, if you’re thinking about having a baby, are pregnant or breast feeding, the safest option is to not drink alcohol. And if you or someone you know is pregnant and has been drinking, it’s not too late to stop now and reduce the impact of FASD.

To find out more about having the healthiest possible pregnancy, visit your local medical centre for information or check out the links on our website

Let’s finish with some more of Strong Baby, Strong Life, from the youth at Tennant Creek.

I’m Nathan Ramsay. Catch you next time.

Stay deadly.

Find out more

The Australian Government has established alcohol and drug information services in each state and territory, which people can contact for more information or advice about Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

A parliamentary inquiry into the prevalence and prevention of FASD is currently underway.

The National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee released its position paper on FASD at a national conference held in Fremantle earlier this year. The committee is dedicated to representing Aboriginal people in alcohol and other drug policy.

The peak body NOFASARD also offers education, training and advocacy surrounding foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

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