The number of Winnipeg women who say they drank while pregnant is on the rise, with especially alarming rates in Point Douglas and Transcona.
In 2003, about 12 per cent of women admitted to consuming alcohol while expecting. In 2008, that number inched up to 14 per cent, according to data collected by public health nurses during routine interviews with every new mother in Winnipeg.
Provincial health experts say a better question was created in 2007, which could account for the spike. Public health nurses got some new training and a new script that helped them ask the tricky question in a non-threatening way that might have encouraged more women to answer honestly.
But others say the increase raises questions about the effectiveness of an $11-million strategy by the Manitoba government to prevent and treat fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the range of brain damage caused by alcohol exposure in the womb.
FASD affects more people than Down syndrome and autism combined and costs Canadians at least $5.3 billion a year. It is virtually invisible and mired in stigma. Diagnosis is tricky, services are spotty and schools, the courts and the job world are almost perfectly set up for people with FASD to fail.
The Inkster neighbourhood saw a heartening drop in the number of women who admitted to drinking while pregnant, but Transcona saw a whopping 175 per cent increase.
As of 2006, the last year that neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood data is available, nearly 21 per cent of women in Transcona said they consumed alcohol while expecting. That's up from 7.6 per cent in 2003.
The heart of Winnipeg, Point Douglas, has the city's highest number of moms who admit to drinking while pregnant -- nearly 25 per cent.
That proves prevention strategies aren't working, said a Point Douglas community activist.
"The social marketing on maternal drinking is atrocious," Sel Burrows said. "There's a need for advertising specifically oriented to the inner city."
The spokesman for the North Point Douglas Residents Association sees a small group in the area with a huge problem that's spreading.
"Their culture is being replaced by the culture of the party and horrible binge drinking." The fallout from that hard-core boozing often leads to shootings and stabbings that make the news -- and domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies that don't.
"Poverty's a huge piece of it," Burrows said. "Most people who are poor aren't involved in crime and aren't having FASD kids... but we have a subculture where the normal checks and balances of society aren't being used."
"Wimpy" advertising by the province and the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission targeting pregnant women won't cut it, Burrows said.
One magazine ad captioned Girls Night Out shows two pregnant women in an upscale living room with apples and cookies on the coffee table.
Burrows and his wife, Chris, came up with something more direct.
"It's a woman holding a baby and a beer bottle with a nipple on it and the caption 'This is child abuse.' Another is a pregnant woman drinking a beer -- 'So is this.' "
Burrows said they've pitched the ad to community services and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
"People who support choice are petrified that once the issue of defending fetuses is raised in any way, anti-choice people will restrict access to abortion," he said.
"There's got to be a way to figure it out."