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We Must Work to Reduce Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Earlier this year I wrote about the prevalence of Sudden Infant Death
Syndrome (SIDS) amongst American Indian populations, and the need to
educate parents on ways to mitigate the high incidence of this tragic
occurrence. Today, I write to you about another disease that has manifested
in many American Indian communities, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
(FASD).

FASD are the leading known cause of mental retardation in the United
States. Current studies estimate 40,000 newborns per year are born with
FASD, which translates to an incidence rate of 1 out of every 100 births.

While FASD occurs in all sections of the general population, research and
medical studies show that there is a higher rate of incidence of FASD among
minority populations, especially American Indian and Alaskan Native groups.
American Indians in general have always suffered from a health status that
is far below the general population of the United States, and this is no
exception.

Various studies of the American Indian population estimate the frequency of
FASD between 7.86 and 8.97 per 1,000 children. This number is more than
three times the average estimate for all of North America. The rates of
FASD in the American Indian population vary greatly from one tribe to
another. Individual tribal populations can have very high rates of FASD,
while others are essentially zero.

Individuals with FASD are often small at birth, develop slowly, and can
suffer from mental retardation or a low IQ. They might also have learning
difficulties, show poor coordination, have problems with memory or
attention and exhibit hyperactivity and behavioral problems.

As a result, children and young adults with FASD often require special
education, social counseling, and career and financial support.
Accordingly, the societal cost of FASD is at more than $5 billion a year.
That is nearly twice the amount that the U.S. government spends to fund
Indian Health Services each year.

However, there is hope because FASD are completely preventable if a woman
abstains from alcohol during pregnancy, making it imperative that outreach
and education are under-taken to address this national concern.
Unfortunately, lack of knowledge of the dangers of drinking while pregnant
has allowed prenatal exposure to persist, and in some cases even rise.

Like most public health crises, the key to preventing the occurrence of
FASD is increasing public awareness through outreach and education. This is
particularly important in American Indian communities where there is often
a lack of access to information and high quality health care. In light of
this, many tribes have taken matters into their own hands; carrying out
community-based projects designed to educate children, adolescents, and
expectant mothers about FASD and how to prevent it.

Congress must also do its part to help reduce the incidence of FASD.
Accordingly, I, along with my colleague Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, have
formed the Congressional Caucus on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. This
Caucus will serve to educate and inform members of Congress on matters
relevant to FASD. Additionally, Congress needs to help communities combat
FASD by providing increased funding for research, surveillance,
identification programs, and public awareness programs. It is our hope that
through education and outreach we can achieve prevention.

There are many current health-related problems plaguing Indian country, and
this is just one of them. The good news is that we have a course of action.
While we have a lot of work ahead of us regarding this issue, and many of
the other Indian health issues, I am looking forward to working with Indian
country to meet this challenge.

Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. is currently serving his eighth full term in
the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Pallone represents New Jersey's
Sixth Congressional District, serving as a senior member of the House
Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Resources Committee.