A group of professionals gathered in Hay River last week to discuss fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).
The Sept. 2 workshop was presented by Hay River Public Health to mark International FASD Awareness Day, which is actually Sept. 9.
“It is an important topic and there are still babies being exposed in utero to alcohol and that’s not stopping,” said Judy Steele, supervisor of Public Health in Hay River and the organizer of the workshop.
Seventeen people attended the gathering, such as representatives from the Supported Living Services Campus, Community Counselling, Public Health and the Town of Hay River’s recreation department, along with the community health representative from the Hay River Reserve.
Steele described the workshop as a general exchange of information.
One of the issues with FASD is the lack of numbers on how many people are actually affected by the condition in the NWT.
“So we’re starting to gather statistics of the occurrence and incidence of FAS in the Northwest Territories, because up until this point we actually don’t have real good numbers. We don’t know our statistics,” said Steele, pointing to the work being done by the FASD diagnostic team at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife.
One of the guest speakers at the workshop was Lori Twissell, the family liaison with the FASD project at Stanton.
Twissell said that for more than five years the program has been providing FASD diagnostic services throughout the NWT and follow-up support to families, schools and communities to encourage supportive programming around children who have been through the clinic.
“I think that people are interested in FASD and its effect on children and families,” she said. “I think there is a lot of information available. The challenge is to determine good, credible information and then translate it into programming in Northern communities, because it might look very different than it would in a southern city, for example.”
Twissell said there’s a lot of positive programming that can be done to better understand how brains work and some of the adjustments in the environment that can support children, families and schools.
“So it’s not necessarily a condition that requires a lot of financial or substantial investment,” she said. “There’s lots of really good things that could be done just in helping people better understand the effects on the brain.”
Twissell said practical, common sense approaches to programs helps relieve some of the concern about FASD.
“I would say there’s a more significant concern in how do we get prevention messages out, how do we make it so that we’re not exposing prenatally so this condition doesn’t continue indefinitely,” she said.
Twissell said there is no evidence to suggest FASD is more prevalent in the North, the south or anywhere else.
Jane Arychuk, president of Aurora College, also spoke at the workshop about some of her initiatives on FASD while a school principal in Fort Providence, and the impact she saw on individuals, families and the community.
“My message is the importance of awareness, the importance of support and understanding,” Arychuk said.
She was invited to the workshop because she gives a presentation on FASD to social work and nursing students at the college, and one of those former students now works in Public Health in Hay River.
Arychuk said her efforts as a principal in Fort Providence focused on making people aware of what FASD is, how it’s caused, how to prevent it, and understanding how people, families and the community are affected.
She also launched various support programs.
The third guest speaker was Wanda Beland of the Northwest Regional FASD Society, Mackenzie Network, in High Level, Alta.
“People think the information is out there, therefore everybody knows about the effects of alcohol during pregnancy,” she said. “It isn’t common sense. It isn’t common knowledge that alcohol causes the cell damage that it does during pregnancy.”
Beland said it is therefore important to educate women of childbearing years, their partners and their families of the dangers of alcohol use during pregnancy.
Steele was pleased with the workshop, adding that the hope is to have the event again next year.