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Waking up to the realities of FASD

France tackling growing problem

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Europe is waking up to the fact it has a problem with FASD, and it is turning to Canada -- and Manitoba in particular -- for help.

A delegation of eight French researchers, medical doctors, and government officials has spent much of the week in Winnipeg meeting with local experts as that country tries to develop a national strategy for dealing with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

"We know that in Manitoba you have a vast program which has integrated the different aspects of FASD," said Dr. Carmen Kreft-Jais, senior consultant with the National Institute for Prevention and Health Education in Paris. "As in Canada, we have problems with alcohol consumption."

Of the 850,000 births per year in France, it's estimated between 700 and 3,000 will have FASD.

The French want to improve screening, education and treatment programs and are keenly interested in research being done at the University of Manitoba. France -- and other European countries -- is at least a decade behind Canada in these areas.

Manitoba is a leading centre for FASD research and treatment. No fewer than 10 Manitobans are scheduled to make presentations at the 5th International Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in Vancouver from Feb. 27 to March 2.

Several members of the French delegation came to Canada early to tour Manitoba's FASD Centre, hear about the latest research here and talk to local officials about how FASD sufferers are handled by the criminal justice system.

In France, there is a severe lack of knowledge about FASD.

"So nothing is done," said Dr. Juliette Bloch, scientific director for a national body that finances services for disabled and elderly people in that country. The nation lacks specialized clinics to treat kids with FASD, she said.

An exception is on the French island La Réunion, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. It has a prevention program and a clinic collaborating with Manitoba FASD researchers.

Dr. Denis Lamblin, a pediatrician who heads the FASD program on the tropical island, said there is a great need to educate social workers and education and medical officials about FASD in France. He said in much of the country, the subject is "taboo."

Lamblin's colleagues in the delegation said the knowledge gap also exists in the rest of Europe. Scientists and officials in other European countries are seeking to learn about diagnostic treatment and prevention programs in Manitoba, where more than $10 million a year is spent on FASD programming.

A Finnish researcher was also in Winnipeg this week getting educated on what's happening in Manitoba, before heading to the Vancouver conference.

Meanwhile, Scottish officials have expressed interest in receiving training from Manitoba on FASD diagnosis, assessment and treatment.

A few years ago, following a trip by Premier Greg Selinger to Israel, researchers in the Middle East country and Manitoba began to collaborate on FASD research. Out of that grew the Canada Israel International Fetal Alcohol Consortium, which co-ordinated the visit by the French delegation as well as a symposium on FASD to be held today in Winnipeg. The CIIFAC partnership is being expanded to include France.

Geoff Hicks, director of regenerative medicine at the University of Manitoba, said the partners are focusing on two different research streams: one examining the potential of vitamin A and other nutrients to reduce the severity and prevalence of FASD, and one seeking to develop tools to diagnose the disability early.

"We know that if you can diagnose before school age, you can have a tremendous impact on the outcome of that child. It's like night and day," Hicks said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 A12

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