The Grapevine

Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Causes Premature Birth, Low Birth Weight In West Virginia, Study Finds

It is an already known fact that physical deformities and growth deficiencies affect newborns who experienced high doses of prenatal alcohol exposure in the first trimester. This is because organs are still developing during the early stages of pregnancy, making fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) detrimental to the fetus’ growth. 

A new study by West Virginia University School of Medicine and School of Public Health focusing on babies born in West Virginia studied prenatal alcohol exposure in the third trimester, the crucial stage when the brain develops rapidly. Alcohol exposure shortly before babies are born leads to developmental problems that do not become evident till age five or six when they join school and require cognitive or social skills to succeed.

They are usually not born with physical deformities, hence it takes a while to identify. The study led by Stefan Maxwell, a neonatologist at Charleston Area Medical Center, affiliated to the West Virginia University, examined dried blood spots in 1,729 newborns in the state.

What The Study Found

Phosphatidylethanol, also known as PETH, is a byproduct of metabolized alcohol, which is a biomarker of alcohol exposure in the past two to four weeks

. The data from the PETH test was compared to statistics available on the health of newborns in West Virginia from Project WATCH.

For the project, all hospitals in the state use a Birth Score tool that measures substances the fetus was exposed to during gestation. Examples are tobacco, cannabinoids and opioids. 

Prenatal Drug Exposure A newborn child. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Just for the purpose of the study, the Birth Score tool started measuring prenatal alcohol exposure. The PETH test can effectively pick up binge drinking habits of the mothers, researchers claimed. "The early detection of prenatal alcohol exposure and early diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder means that interventions can be targeted at an earlier age to reduce the cognitive and behavioral deficits in later life," Amna Umer, research assistant professor in the West Virginia University School of Medicine, said.

The findings of the team disclosed that 8.10 percent of births detected late-pregnancy alcohol use in the third trimester. However, prenatal alcohol exposure was vastly different in many parts of the state. For example, 2.3 percent was the prevalence in the Eastern Panhandle and was 17.1 percent in areas around Mid-Ohio Valley. 

To make matters worse, prenatal alcohol exposure was often accompanied with maternal smoking during pregnancy. Such children were born premature with low birth weight, as per the researchers. These children are not accurately diagnosed and consequently denied the right of therapy. 

"The problem is that when children at the age of 6 or 7 start to have these neuro-developmental disorders--leaning disabilities or whatever it may be--they get misdiagnosed. They could be misdiagnosed with ADHD or autism or something else, or the diagnosis could be missed altogether. You could imagine these kids in kindergarten, getting bullied or put in the corner or made to sit outside," Maxwell said. 

"It becomes important to know that there was prenatal alcohol exposure. That would be a differential diagnosis. Because the actual approach to therapy may be a little bit different," Maxwell added.