Background: Globally, alcohol use contributes to close to 4% of all deaths and is a leading cause of ill health and premature death among men of reproductive age. Problem alcohol use is an unaddressed public health issue among populations displaced by conflict. Assessing the magnitude of the problem and identifying affected groups and risk behaviours is difficult in mobile and unstable populations.
Methods: From 15-28 December 2009 we conducted a simple rapid screening test of risky alcohol use using the single item modified Short Assessment Screening Questionnaire (mSASQ) by all women currently enrolled in the antenatal care clinic in Mae La refugee camp, a long standing displaced setting on the Thai Burma border. Women self- reported and gave a secondary report of their male partners. Gender differences in alcohol use were further explored in semi-structured interviews with camp residents on attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs regarding alcohol and analysed thematically.
Results: Of 636 women screened in the antenatal clinic, almost none (0.2%, 95CI 0.0-0.9%) reported risky alcohol use prior to pregnancy, whereas around a quarter (24.4%, 95CI 21.2-27.9%) reported risky alcohol use by their male partners. Interviews with 97 camp residents described strong social controls against women's alcohol use and men's drinking to intoxication, despite a dominant perception that the social context of life in displacement promoted alcohol use and that controls are loosening.
Conclusions: As a stigmatised behaviour, alcohol use is difficult to assess, particularly in the context of highly mobile adult male populations: the simple assessment methods here show that it is feasible to obtain adequate data for the purposes of intervention design. The data suggest that risky drinking is common and normalised among men, but that the population may have been partially protected from rapid rises in problem alcohol use observed in nation-wide data from Thailand. The changing social context contains vulnerabilities that might promote problem alcohol use: further investigation, ongoing monitoring, and development of targeted interventions are warranted.