THE provincial and federal governments are about to launch a pilot project to screen kids for FASD in schools -- one bright spot in a painfully slow battle to detect and prevent FASD.
There are at least 306,000 Canadians with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, but most of the country's diagnostic clinics only catch 10 or 15 per cent of kids with FASD, Manitoba's top FASD doctor says.
That's despite ample evidence catching FASD early dramatically improves a child's chance at a healthy, productive life not mired in the spin-off effects of FASD -- trouble with the law, inappropriate sexual behaviour, mental illness and unemployment.
But so far, say parents of kids with FASD, screening hasn't been a priority because governments simply don't want to know how bad the problem really is. And, finding a good system that's cheap, thorough enough to detect most cases, but sensitive enough to avoid too many false positives, is proving tricky.
Some experts say every child in elementary school ought to undergo an initial test for FASD, just like students get screened for vision and hearing problems. Kids picked up by the screening could be referred to a diagnostic clinic such as Manitoba's FASD Centre for more thorough testing.
The Manitoba government hopes to test out a screening tool in schools in the near future with money from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Healthy Child Manitoba was mum on the details, saying it's still working with school divisions and the developers of the screening tool. The pilot would likely involve a questionnaire to teachers that would identify students at risk of FASD.
Others, including Manitoba Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard, say all babies should be screened for FASD. Others say all pregnant women ought to be vigorously evaluated to find out whether they are drinking.
Winnipeg FASD physician Albert Chudley says the next step should be a combination -- a national screening system for fetal alcohol effects, as well as screening for the risk of maternal drinking.
"Ideally, we want to prevent this," said Chudley.
At the very least, say lawyers and social workers, all kids in care and all teens in jail ought to be screened for FASD, since that's where so many end up.
"If we automatically look for FASD at intake, we are going to have much better outcomes for these children," said former social worker and FASD consultant Donna Debolt.
-- stunts individual brain cells and major parts of the brain, such as the main processing centre of the cerebellum and the corpus callosum, a thick band of fibres in the brain's core that connects the right and left hemispheres. It is brain damage, just like an injury caused by head trauma from a car accident.
-- affects more people than Down's syndrome and autism combined, and costs Canadians at least $5.3 billion a year.
-- 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.
-- is widely seen as an "aboriginal problem." It is not. Alcohol-related birth defects affect every race and income level. In fact, experts say the group most at risk are students or professional women in their late 20s or early 30s who binge-drink on the weekends and may not realize they are pregnant until the damage is done.