Canada’s own infant health emergency
Canadians have watched with dismay and compassion as the Zika virus takes its toll in South America. The vivid images of totally unprepared young mothers cuddling newborns afflicted with microcephaly — abnormally small heads indicative of brain damage — are heart-wrenching. It’s not difficult to imagine the future suffering of these children and families.
The virus is present in more than 20 southern countries, especially Brazil, and both regional and international responses have been swift and dramatic. Thousands of soldiers have been dispatched door-to-door in areas where infectious mosquitoes breed, dispensing sleeping nets and information about the apparent links between the virus and birth defects. Both the World Health Organization and World Bank have offered help. The Zika virus is now an official global health emergency.
The rapid response to the Zika crisis is a bitter and ironic tableau for Canadians engaged in a long, thankless struggle with a far more insidious enemy: FASD — fetal alcohol syndrome disorder.
About 3,000 Canadian babies are born every year with prenatal, alcohol-related brain injuries at a cost of about $8 billion annually. FASD is Canada’s leading cause of preventable birth disabilities.
FASD is a global affliction, the result of drinking during pregnancy. It is known to occur in every class and culture, but emerges especially in isolated communities living in conditions of extreme poverty. It has ravaged Canada’s indigenous population, particularly in northern remote areas where unemployment, poor health care, and inadequate and overcrowded housing prevail.
Unlike children with microencephaly, FASD in children is rarely detectable or diagnosed at birth. Children with FASD may have average or above-average intelligence. Complications often may not appear until school age. The handicaps it imposes are various and complex; they include faulty reasoning, depression, poor emotional and impulse control, exaggerated susceptibility to the influence of others, violence, and drug and alcohol addiction.
As the newborn victims of the Zika virus are likely to be, Canada’s FASD children are innocents facing a life sentence with no known cure. Only the country’s health-care professionals are aware of the urgency surrounding supports for today’s kids and preventing FASD altogether.
But the national conversation about alcohol-induced birth injuries has been botched. Earlier and misplaced condemnation of desperate drinking mothers overwhelmed by their circumstances may have given way to a more supportive approach, but otherwise, simple avoidance of the reality of FASD prevails. In heartfelt public discussions of the issues aboriginal leaders are tackling, the role of FASD is rarely mentioned. Those include homelessness, the number of children in care, runaways, high levels of youth suicide and the disproportionate number of indigenous men and women in Canada’s prisons.
One point frequently made in private is the sardonic idea that the white man is the aboriginal person’s most challenging burden. FASD fuels employment for everyone — in health care, in law enforcement, in the courts, in social work, in jails — jobs for everyone, except for aboriginal peoples.
The federal government has proclaimed its intention to rebuild Canada’s relationship with First Nations peoples into one that can be described as “nation to nation,” a partnership of genuine equals. Its priorities so far appear to be involving indigenous peoples in environmental decisions, and getting to the truth behind Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women, both of which are long overdue.
The prevention of FASD and the abject poverty it produces need to be added to the prime minster’s list.
Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer.
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