Objective: The aim of the study was to determine the prevalence and characteristics of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in a second primary school cohort in a community in South Africa.
Method: Active case ascertainment, two-tier screening, and Institute of Medicine assessment methodology were employed among 857 first grade pupils, most born in 1993. Characteristics of children with FAS were contrasted with characteristics of a randomly selected control group from the same classrooms. Physical growth and development, dysmorphology and psychological characteristics of the children and measures of maternal alcohol use and smoking were analyzed.
Results: The rate of FAS found in this study is the highest yet reported in any overall community in the world, 65.2-74.2 per 1,000 children in the first grade population. These rates are 33-148 times greater than U.S. estimates and higher than in a previous cohort study in this same community (40.5-46.4 per 1,000). Detailed documentation of physical features indicates that FAS children in South Africa have characteristics similar to those elsewhere: poor growth and development, facial and limb dysmorphology, and lower intellectual functioning. Frequent, severe episodic drinking of beer and wine is common among mothers and fathers of FAS children. Their lives are characterized by serious familial, social and economic challenges, compared with controls. Heavy episodic maternal drinking is significantly associated with negative outcomes of children in the area of nonverbal intelligence but even more so in verbal intelligence, behavior and overall dysmorphology (physical anomalies). Significantly more FAS exists among children of women who were rural residents (odds ratio: 7.36, 95% confidence interval: 3.31-16.52), usually among workers on local farms.
Conclusion: A high rate of FAS was documented in this community. Given social and economic similarities and racial admixture, we suspect that other communities in the Western Cape have rates that also are quite high.