Pregnant mums in the UK are among the world’s worst for harming their unborn baby by boozing.
A study found four times more British children suffer alcohol-related birth defects than the global average.
The UK is seventh out of 195 countries worldwide and sixth in Europe for the proportion of children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This refers to a series of developmental problems caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb.
The Canadian researchers said the problem was far more common than people thought, mainly because the disabilities caused by FASD have often been attributed to something else.
They found high levels of FASD among people with autism, learning difficulties and growth disorders.
The scientists called for the dangers of alcohol to be reinforced in sex education. And they said screening pregnant women for alcohol could also combat the problem.
Study author Dr Svetlana Popova, of the Canadian Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, said the issue should be “a public health priority”.
One in every 13 women who drink during pregnancy will have a child with FASD, the study found. It is caused when alcohol drunk by the mother passes through the placenta to the foetus. An unborn child cannot process alcohol, which damages its cells.
Symptoms can include growth problems, cerebral palsy, learning difficulties, problems with hearing and vision, and issues with the liver, kidneys and heart.
The scientists analysed 24 studies from around the world and found that about 32 in every 1,000 Britons have FASD, compared to the global average of eight in 1,000.
In contrast, the figure is 15 in 1,000 in the US, 10 in France and 20 in Germany.
South Africa has the highest proportion of people with FASD, with 111 in 1,000. The other five worst countries are in Europe, including Croatia, with 53 in 1,000, Ireland, with 48, and Italy, with 45.
About half of all pregnancies in Western nations are not planned, meaning women may be unaware they are pregnant and continue to drink. But doctors say abstaining at any point in pregnancy is better than not at all.
Writing in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, Dr Popova said: “Efforts should be made to educate all women of childbearing age about the potential detrimental effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the developing foetus.”
She also recommended developing a “universal screening protocol to detect problematic drinking before and during pregnancy”.
Sandra Butcher, of the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome UK, said: “If you would strap a child into a car seat to protect them in case you might have an accident, this is no different. The best way you can protect your baby’s developing brain is to avoid alcohol.”
UK guidance is confused
In the UK pregnant women were once allowed one or two small glasses of wine once or twice a week, under Department of Health advice.
But in 2016 Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies said they should abstain completely.
Doctors say mothers who drink put their babies at risk of problems such as stunted growth, premature birth, miscarriage and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Research published in January revealed that 28.5 per cent of pregnant women in the UK drink alcohol despite knowing they are expecting.