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Thousands of pregnant mothers in South Africa drink during pregnancy putting their child’s health at risk

Nathalene Jakobs with her four month old baby Bertram

A recent report from The Telegraph highlights the rise in babies being born with disabilities in South Africa’s Western Cape because expected mothers continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy.

FASD, also known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, is caused by alcohol consumption when carrying an unborn baby which can lead to debilitating and life-long disabilities.

Of course, it’s not just South African pregnant women who put their babies at risk by drinking before giving birth, but the Western Cape has the highest rate of FASD with 31 per cent of the world’s population.

Babies born with the condition have a shorter lifespan, it’s unlikely most of the infants will live beyond their mid-30s.

Children affected by FASD can have low intelligence, poor reasoning skills, learning disabilities, behavioural problems, facial deformities, vision loss, hearing loss and severe organ damage; many are not able to finish education, find employment or live an independent life.

Rochelle Ntsimbi is a 22-year-old mum of one, she started drinking alcohol from the age of 15 but when she lost her mother the habit started to spiral out of control.

“It took me very hard. I had older sisters, but they didn’t care about me. Then I took it to high-level drinking. I was drinking a lot. I didn’t even care,” she told The Telegraph.

“When my mother died, I felt like I was alone, the person who was there for me was not there any more. I was like: ‘I am my own big person now, nobody can tell me anything any more’.”

But when she found out she was pregnant Ntsimbi stopped drinking, although for others it was too late to give up the booze.

Nathalene Jakobs [pictured above] had no idea she was carrying a baby, unaware she was about to be a mum she would party every weekend, knocking back two bottles of rum and a five-litre box of wine.

It was not until she suffered morning sickness when Jakobs realised she was pregnant - but the damage had been done; Beronique was born with a severe chest infection.

Jakobs  “I went to hospital and they told me the baby had got too much alcohol and they sent me home. About a week later, the baby passed away. She just stopped breathing.”

But she still has not learnt her lesson, Jakobs continued to drink through her fifth pregnancy blaming friction between herself and her husband.

“It was stress. Me and my husband were arguing a lot because he didn’t have work,” she said.

According to the World Health Organization just having three drinks is enough to cause serious damage to an unborn baby.

Dr Leana Olivier, CEO of the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR), said: “In all the studies we’ve done, when we ask what sensible drinking means, nobody knows. They say we drink until we tip over, and if I don’t drink, I’d be the only one in my circle not drinking.”

In South African towns drinking when pregnant is accepted in society. “Often, pregnant women don’t want to feel like the odd one out – people will be confused as to why they aren’t drinking,” explained Dr Olivier. 

In the 1990s such behaviour was banned, but still today, three decades later, 20 percent of farm workers are being paid in alcohol.

“When the dop system became illegal in the 1990s, we were supposed to get a sharp decline in the FASD rates – but that didn’t happen,” Dr Olivier told the publication.

“The system created a legacy of drinking, but drinking is a much larger part of our history in South Africa.

“Many of these women find themselves in a hopeless situation.

“They tell us that to cope with the day, they have to drink because that helps them carry on with their lives.”

Until something is done and there is a change in society, thousands of expectant mothers in South Africa will continue to drink, putting their babies' health and lives at risk.

[ South Africa rate of unplanned pregnancies currently stands at around 60 percent. ]

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