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Sunday 24th June 2018

Drink blights S. African children

25th October 2006

South Africa's Western Cape is famous for its fine wines and tourist trails but the region has some of the worst recorded rates of foetal alcohol syndrome anywhere in the world.

In some communities as many as 8% of the children are born with alcohol-related birth defects.

Partly to blame is the fact that for years the vineyard owners would pay their workers not in cash but with wine. Although that practice was banned several decades ago, it has left a legacy.

Now research is being funded into foetal alcohol syndrome - and the findings send out a strong warning to mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy.

Local primary school teacher Tina Truda says that in her classroom, alcohol-related disorders affect far more than the 8% who officially have the syndrome. She says up to 20 of the 30 children in her class are affected.

Until now, the problem of foetal alcohol syndrome has been largely ignored, even though it has devastated these communities for generations. But funding is finally starting to trickle in.

Professor Denis Viljoen, who heads the Foundation for Alcohol-Related Research in Johannesburg, says that because of genetic factors, people break down alcohol at different rates. But he warns you don't have to be an alcoholic to harm your child's development.

"A single binge can actually cause foetal alcohol syndrome. Very high levels of blood alcohol that could be attained by going to a party or a wedding could very easily cause foetal alcohol syndrome [and] result in a child being structurally damaged for life," he says.

His first task is to help stem the alarming rates in South Africa's Western Cape. But he is up against a drinking culture that is deeply ingrained. Generations of impoverished farm labourers have put into practice the expression: "If you can't drown your troubles away, at least you can make them float for a while."

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