Foetal Alcohol Syndrome The Tragic Untold Story of Addiction & Neglect

Credits: WORDS Ellie Chesshire


Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition caused by drinking during pregnancy, affecting three million people throughout South Africa. Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed by the mother, a child can be born with debilitating physical and mental disorders. As a result, these babies are more likely to be abandoned by their mothers.

What are the effects of FAS?

FAS has been identified as the largest cause of mental retardation in most industrial nations and has directly been linked to crime and substance abuse. Photo: Jenna Norman/

FAS is directly linked to a mother drinking alcohol while pregnant, particularly in the first trimester. The alcohol passes through the placenta into the foetus, and prevents oxygen and nutrition from reaching the baby’s vital organs. Lasting damage can be done even in the first few weeks of pregnancy, although the risk is much worse if
the mother is a heavy drinker.

FAS can have a variety of medical consequences on a child, the most common effects include:

  • Delayed development of speech, movement and social skills
  • Stunted growth, including a smaller head and brain
  • Poor judgment and coordination
  • Heart problems, if the damage is severe enough

FAS can have a variety of medical consequences on a child, largely depending on how much his/her mother drank during pregnancy and how early that drinking started. Photo: Tom Sodoge/

FAS has been identified as the largest cause of mental retardation in most industrial nations and has been directly linked to crime and substance abuse. Due to the alcohol consumed during pregnancy, children with FAS are much more likely to become substance abusers themselves and require a lot of structure and stability to ensure they do not.

The Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR)

FARR is the leading NGO source of research and information on foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, namely the most severe form of this disorder, FAS. Professor Denis Viljoen, set up the foundation in 1997 after discovering through his work at a Cape Town genetics clinic that one in ten children he saw suffered from the condition. In the WHO Bulletin report he says that, ‘I saw then that FAS was much more common than people thought…public awareness [in South Africa] started with our initial research.’

‘FAS is the most common birth defect in the world, by far more common than Downs Syndrome and other neural-tube defects,’ Viljoen also says, ‘it is tragic because it is so easily preventable.’ Leana Olivier, the CEO of FARR, explains ‘the prevalence rate of FASD in South Africa is several times higher than elsewhere in the world.’ It is clear that the drinking culture is a huge problem in South Africa, ‘in all the studies we’ve done, when we ask

what sensible drinking means, nobody knows.’ Olivier points out, ‘they say we drink until we tip over, and if I don’t drink, I’d be the only one in my circle not drinking.’

Olivier also believes a big part of the problem is the way society treats mothers, ‘there’s still a lot of labelling, a lot of blame placed on mothers,’ she says. This is perhaps a reason why there is such a prevalent link between FAS and child abandonment.

Addiction & abandonment

Children who struggle with FAS require more care and intervention than others, yet sadly they are commonly abandoned. The Miracle Kidz home in Cape Town specialises in caring for children with FAS and the staff there believe that the main reason for abandonment is drugs and alcohol.

Mothers who are heavy drinkers and have little economic stability often lack the capability to care for their children after they are born. This, coupled with the fact that children with FAS are harder to care for, means that babies are more likely to be rejected.

Mothers who are heavy drinkers and have little economic stability often lack the capability to care for their children after they are born. This, coupled with the fact that children with FAS are harder to care for, means that babies are more likely to be rejected.

Elsie Du Plessis, founder of Miracle Kidz, points out that many parents are ‘slaves to drugs and alcohol,’ and this in turn makes it easy for the children to become entrapped in addiction as well.

Alongside these addictive tendencies, children with FAS have no concept of danger. Not only is this disastrous for the children who end up in gangs, but it also potentially feeds into the cycle of poverty, violence and crime.

Second chances

It’s not all bad however. Organisations such as Miracle Kidz give FAS children a second chance and have created a real home environment where they can express themselves and make use of their many talents.

Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition affecting the unborn baby if the mother drinks during pregnancy. FAS affects three million people throughout South Africa. Photo: Janko Ferlic/

Ricardo, one of their adopted children, is incredibly skilled with his hands and as such is being encouraged to develop this talent. Time is taken to ensure that these children will one day have a chance to make a career for themselves. Stories such as these prove that with the right care and support, FAS children can grow up to become incredibly valuable members of the

The real goal, however, is to provide education and support to reduce the number of children being diagnosed with FAS. The mental damage caused by FAS is irreversible and unfortunately there is momentarily no cure. Charity organisations are doing everything they can to care children with FAS but resources are tight and they are constantly stretched. It is groups such as these who now need more help than ever.

Prevention & intervention

Alongside organisations that care for children suffering from the condition, FARR works tirelessly to help prevent FAS through education and awareness. The FARR training academy has been in operation since 2008 and in that time they have trained 1500 learners on the dangers of substance abuse during pregnancy. They focus on training professionals such as educators, social workers, doctors and nurses so that these professionals can go out and educate the general public about the disease. FAS is afflicting the lives of millions of people throughout South Africa. However, this does not need to be the case. FAS is a completely preventable disease, that with education and time can be totally eradicated.

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