Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder prevalence up to 40 times higher in some subpopulations worldwide

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder prevalence up to 40 times higher in some subpopulations worldwide

TORONTO, April 30, 2019 – Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) affects people from all racial, ethnic and sociological backgrounds.  However a major new review of the world literature has found that FASD is 10 to 40 times higher in certain groups than the general population according to a study published by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in the journal Addiction.

FASD is a serious, lifelong, disabling condition caused by the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol can readily cross the placenta, resulting in permanent damage to the brain and other organs of the developing embryo and fetus. As a result, people with FASD may have physical disabilities such as hearing, visual and heart problems as well as learning disability, difficulties with memory, attention, speech, social skills, coordination, difficulty absorbing information, misinterpretation of social cues and lower than average IQ.

This review used data from 69 studies representing 17 countries across North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australasia.  The identified studies included five sub-populations:

  • children in care
  • people in correctional service custody
  • people in special education services
  • people using specialized clinical services for developmental disabilities or psychiatric care
  • Indigenous populations

The estimated prevalence of FASD in these groups ranged from 10 to 40 times higher than the 7.7 per 1,000 global FASD prevalence in the general population.  For example, FASD prevalence among adults in the Canadian correctional system was 19 times higher, among children in care it was 32 times higher in the United States and 40 times higher in Chile.

“Public policy and clinical care for people with FASD needs to recognise the severity of the problem globally,” said lead author Dr. Svetlana (Lana) Popova, a senior scientist at CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research. “Routine screening protocols should be established to identify people with FASD in child welfare, special education, the justice system and other settings with vulnerable populations to provide appropriate support and early interventions. Service staff should be trained in FASD awareness, identification, and interventions to provide better care.”

Dr. Popova emphasizes that the idea of safely having a glass of wine during dinner while pregnant is a myth and that many international organizations, including the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada , say there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

“The fetus can be damaged at any point during pregnancy.  In many cases, it happens before women know they are pregnant,” said Dr. Popova. “Pregnant women should completely abstain from any type of alcohol during their entire pregnancy and while trying to get pregnant.”

For further information, or to arrange an interview with Dr. Popova, please contact Sean O’Malley, Media Relations, CAMH, 416-595-6015 or media@camh.ca


The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital and a world leading research centre in this field. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental illness and addiction. CAMH is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, and is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Centre. For more information, please follow @CAMHnewson Twitter.


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