The Dangers of Drinking While Pregnant Are Widely Ignored. but Suburban Leaders Are out to Change That. Stopping a Disease to Make It All Better

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Byline: Anna Madrzyk amadrzyk@sbcglobal.net

Five-year-old Sasha Wagner wants to be a "hunter of wolves" for Halloween. And she will ride on the wolves' backs. Unless she's a lion instead.

The words spill out rapidly, accompanied by peals of giggles. People always tell Janet Wagner what a great kid Sasha is, so chatty and outgoing.

"And she is," said the Glen Ellyn mom. "But it's really hard every single day, and it's exhausting."

Sasha's mood can turn on a dime, from sunny to screaming. She can't hold on to thoughts and ideas.

Her winsome little face bears the signs of prenatal exposure to alcohol: small eye openings with an extra fold at the corner of the eye; a thin, flat upper lip; ears that stick out a little.

And she's so tiny, still in toddler Size 3 clothes, her mother says, with "Olive Oyl legs with knobby little knees." Sasha was almost 2 when Wagner brought her home from a Russian orphanage, and the mother immediately knew something was wrong.

But even with the telltale facial features, it was another year before the family finally got a diagnosis.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are "one of the best kept secrets in medicine," said Dr. Todd Ochs, an fetal alcohol spectrum disorders specialist at Northwestern University. "And unfortunately, it's an even better-kept secret in criminal justice."

Now efforts are under way on several fronts to prevent the disease and deal with its consequences:

* Illinois is the first state in the country to require FASD instruction in sex education classes.

* In DuPage County, State's Attorney Robert Berlin is heading an FASD Task Force aimed at creating a system to provide mental health screening for all youthful offenders for symptoms of FASD.

* All county clerks are supposed to provide a pamphlet describing the cause and effects of fetal alcohol syndrome to couples seeking marriage licenses. However, at this point "very few counties in Illinois are complying with this," said Illinois Appellate Court Justice Joseph E. Birkett, the former DuPage County state's attorney.

The third Illinois Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders conference, held last week in Wheaton, attracted professionals from the fields of medicine, education, social services and criminal justice, plus parents who are raising children whose brains have been damaged by alcohol.

The message they heard is simple: There is no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy. There is no safe time to drink.

"The brain is in play the entire pregnancy," Ochs said.

In Illinois, 55 percent of women report drinking alcohol, including 10 percent of pregnant women, according to a survey of women ages 18-44.

Nineteen percent of Illinois women report binge drinking a rate higher than the national average but similar to neighboring states, including Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. And perhaps surprisingly, the binge drinking rate is highest among women with household incomes greater than $75,000.

Even one drink during pregnancy can cause damage, FASD experts say.

"My message is (unprotected) sex and alcohol don't mix," said Vivian Botka, FASD Birth Parent Network Coordinator, who worries people won't know they are pregnant and will continue to drink. …