EPIDEMIC: From left, Dr James Fitzpatrick, Magistrate Andrew Eckhold, Professor Elizabeth Elliott and Professor John Boulton at a public health forum looking at foetal alcohol spectrum disorder at Newcastle City Hall.WOMEN who drink should be using contraception to avoid having brain damaged babies, a Newcastle public health forum heard on Tuesday night.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) expert Professor Elizabeth Elliott, of Sydney University, said it was a “false understanding” that disadvantaged women were at greaterrisk of having babies with the disorder that causes life-long brain damage.

Professor Elliottsaid the “standard understanding” was that FASD was more common among lower socio-economic families.

“In fact, the data suggests older women of high socio-economic status are most likely to drink during pregnancy,” she said. “There are too many kids hidden or unrecognised living in high socio-economic families.”

FASD, in which the unborn baby’s brain is damaged by alcohol, is producing a wave of school children with learning difficulties.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) is now instructing pregnant women to give up the grog.

The forum heard that up to 50 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned, creating a major risk forwomen who binge drink.

Professor Elliott said research foundhealth professionals were reluctant to discuss FASD with parents, creating a hidden epidemic.

“Many are worried about asking about alcohol in pregnancy,” she said.“The conversations are just not happening between women and GPs.”

University of Newcastle’s Professor John Boulton, a pioneer of FASD research, said doctors and nurses were “extremely uncomfortable” raising the issue of FASDwith parents when diagnosing children because there was a “moral dimension” to the condition because itwas entirely preventable.

“There is effectively not much redemption,” he said. “There is guilt, but no redemption.”

About 150 people attendedtheforum at Newcastle City Hall organised by Newcastle Local Drug Action Team.

Other speakers included Dr James Fitzpatrick, head of alcohol and pregnancy and FASD research atPerth’s Telethon Kids Institute, and Magistrate Andrew Eckhold, of Newcastle Local Court.

Newcastlehas been selected by the federal government as one of two sites to lead the fightagainstFASDreceivingmore than $500,000 over three years for aprevention program that focuses on increasing community awareness, prevention, skills development for workers and primary health diagnosis.

Dr Fitzpatrick said about one-third of juveniles in custodymet the criteria for FASD and people with FASD were 19 times more likely to end up in jail.

Magistrate Eckhold said the hidden nature of the disorder was evidenced by the fact that he had “never” been presented with a report in the local court diagnosing a person with FASD.