NT govt focusing on pregnant drinkers

High-flying career women in the inner city and Aboriginal women living in remote communities are both looking down the barrel of the same gun: the risk of having babies with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

A Northern Territory parliamentary committee is this week travelling to Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs hearing evidence from health experts and community members to determine how prevalent the condition is and how the government can reduce it.

"It's very simple: fix alcohol abuse in the general community," said Dr David Brummitt, from the Kintore Clinic.

FASD is a very complex condition to diagnose, because children may be born with facial deformities but also with a range of cognitive impairments that are often not detected until they attend school, and are misdiagnosed as other conditions such as ADHD or autism.

It is caused by mothers drinking while pregnant across all social strata around the world and the path to reducing the problem is clouded by wider social issues.

"If (parents) are abusing alcohol during pregnancy, they're likely to be abusing alcohol after pregnancy, and the children are growing up in a home with all those associated problems which will also contribute to cognitive disorders," Dr Brummitt said.

Doctors are reluctant to diagnose FASD, which can masquerade as many other conditions, and there are no solid statistics on how many children or adults might be affected. Drug and alcohol abuse in indigenous communities that have been stricken by generational problems also plays a part, said Sally Pannifex from the Katherine High School special needs unit.

"A loss of identity and self-worth leads to drinking; we have lots of kids that are very talented but have a very low opinion of themselves," she said.

"Until they believe in themselves, they're more likely to engage in these destructive behaviours."

She said she suspected a number of students had the disorder, but the lack of proper diagnoses meant they were going untreated.

Raelene Wing, child health program coordinator at the Sunrise Health Service, said FASD needs to be nationally recognised as a disability so sufferers can receive better support.

Independent MLA Gerry Wood asked her whether the government should have the power to stop pregnant women from drinking if they can't stop themselves.

Earlier this year, NT Attorney-General John Elferink indicated the government was considering the rights of unborn children, which might mean the introduction of laws to prevent women from drinking while pregnant.

"Aboriginal people are really good at finding loopholes," Ms Wing said.

"You can put a court order in place (to prevent them drinking) but they'll find another way to get alcohol, but then you're interfering with human rights."

The NT government has a range of measures in place to minimise dangerous drinking, many of which have been criticised for punishing alcoholics for having addiction, and for excessively targeting indigenous people.

But Kevin Grey, from the Katherine Chamber of Commerce, bemoaned the politicisation of alcohol and said the problem lay in the nation's attitude towards drinking.

"In Australia, the abuse of alcohol is a rite of passage," he said.

Former Labour MP and now CEO of the Wurli-Wurlinjang Health Service, Marion Scrymgour, said there was a lack of political desire to limit alcohol supply in a jurisdiction that loves to drink.

"It's politically unpalatable (to discuss) the supply and over-supply of grog, but if you look at the consumption rates in this town (Katherine), people would be horrified," she said.

"There's a freight train coming, and there's going to be a tragedy if we don't stop it."

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