Given about 5 per cent of New Zealanders suffer Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder with resulting productivity losses ranging from an estimated $49 to $200 million, a University of Otago lecturer is calling for more attention on the disorder.
Associate Professor Anita Gibbs from the Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work uses Teina Pora, the man acquitted in 2014 of the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett, as an example of someone with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) whose life could have been vastly different if the disorder was diagnosed as a child.
In a research letter in the latest issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal, Associate Professor Gibbs says crucial to Pora’s release and acquittal was the discovery that he had FASD, a neuro-disability arising from prenatal alcohol exposure with lifelong impacts. He admitted to crimes as a 17-year-old that he did not commit as his disability made him vulnerable to doing so.
His story may have been different had he been diagnosed with FASD as a child and offered the protection of early intervention as well as a raft of other supports, for example, wearing a MedicAlert bracelet as young adults with FASD in Canada now do, Associate Professor Gibbs says.
“By being diagnosed and wearing a MedicAlert device, perhaps Pora might have received a more appropriate response from arresting police officers and medical professionals involved with his case.”
There is currently no prevalence data for the disability but robust international evidence suggests that up to 5 per cent of the New Zealand population will suffer from it with corresponding productivity losses and huge social and emotional burden on families supporting these individuals, Associate Professor Gibbs says.
“Given these wide-ranging costs, surely it is time to pay more attention to the scale of FASD as both a health issue and social problem.”
Associate Professor Gibbs is also a registered social worker and says in the past 10 years New Zealand has begun to implement measures to assess and diagnose the disorder and develop actions for intervention but this is currently happening in only a few places.
Medical and allied health professionals are in need of training and upskilling to screen, understand and help individuals and families where FASD is an issue, as well as organisational support that enables them to sustain these services, she says.
“People with FASD can flourish with targeted help and support. We need to at the very least ensure their rights as disabled citizens are upheld.
“Even a small intervention like MedicAlert bracelets can offset some of the negative impacts of school exclusion or arrest.”