Scotland publishes first UK guidelines for diagnosing foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Guidelines to aid healthcare professionals in diagnosing foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) have been published for Scotland.

FASD describes a range of harmful effects to a fetus and baby’s development when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy, resulting in brain damage and, in its most severe form, physical issues such as a smaller head and poor growth. The detrimental effects are life-long.

The guidelines, which are the first in the UK to cover this disorder, are published by the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), which develops clinical guidelines for Scotland and is part of Healthcare improvement Scotland.

The guideline supports the Scottish Government’s national approach to improving outcomes and supporting the well-being of children and young people by offering the right help at the right time from the right people.

It is estimated that approximately 3.2% of babies born in the UK are affected by FASD, which is 3 to 4 times the rate of autism, meaning that as many as 172,000 people could be affected by the disorder in Scotland. A recent study in Glasgow studied the meconium of newborn babies and found that 42% of samples showed evidence of the mother having consumed alcohol during pregnancy, with 15% of those pregnancies exposed to very high levels of alcohol.

A report on the experiences of caregivers looking after individuals with FASD by Healthcare Improvement Scotland highlights that a lack of knowledge and understanding amongst healthcare professionals is a key barrier to formal diagnosis and to receiving meaningful support.

Speaking of the guideline, Dr Patricia Jackson, Senior Fellow of Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Honorary Fellow of University of Edinburgh, and Co-Chair of the Guideline Development Group, said:

“FASD remains undiagnosed in the majority of cases. Diagnosis is currently dependent on professionals being aware of the condition and confident in carrying out a diagnostic assessment. For people with FASD, early identification and support can mean fewer mental health issues, better educational achievements, and improved life chances, reducing the possibility of later difficulties such as homelessness and involvement with the criminal justice system.

I would urge healthcare professionals to read the guideline and become better acquainted with how to make the diagnosis. As a result they can significantly change the lives of people with this disorder.”

Children looked after or adopted are at significantly increased risk of having FASD, with 75% of children referred for adoption having a history of alcohol exposure during pregnancy.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood, said:  “Early diagnosis of FASD can make a huge difference in a child’s life and these guidelines will help raise awareness of the condition among healthcare professionals.

“We recently announced support for families affected by FASD in our programme for government, and highlighted this condition and actions focused on prevention and early intervention in our recent Alcohol Framework.

“Although this guideline is aimed at health professionals, I would make the call for all agencies to work together to support children and families to get the best outcomes for children with FASD.”

Click here to view the guidelines