Nunavik observes Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Awareness Day, Sept. 9
"FASD awareness program has really helped to wake up the community”
At 9:09 am on Sept. 9, the church bells will ring out in Puvirnituq, on Nunavik’s Hudson Bay coast.
The nines stand for the nine months of pregnancy before a child is born.
At 9:09 a.m., people will then observe a moment of silence. It won’t be to mourn something lost, but to hear a message that organizers hope will gain attention in a region where alcohol still poses a major threat to maternal health.
Sept. 9 is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Awareness Day, a day to inform families — mothers, fathers, young people and their communities — that there is no safe amount of alcohol, and no safe time to drink during pregnancy.
It’s a message that Aani Tulugak has spent years trying to spread to communities in Nunavik.
In Puvirnituq, the Inuulitsivik health centre oversees the “Nine Months Bonding Program” — one of very few FASD prevention resources available to Nunavimmiut.
When Tulugak was hired to coordinate the program in 2008, she said she sat down at a bare desk and “started from complete scratch,” building a program to support expectant mothers along the Hudson coast.
Based out of Inuulitsivik’s maternity ward, the program begin to offer counselling to newly-pregnant women and their partners.
“We explained to them the dangers of drinking while pregnant,” said Tulugak. “Mothers are not alone, of course — they have partners, family and we used the program to speak to the whole community.”
Five years later, Tulugak is no longer coordinating the program (she works as director of community services at Inuulitsivik). But the Nine Months Bonding program is well-established, ending with a communal baby shower, where women who are about to deliver gather for a celebration and receive gifts donated by the local co-op store.
The program also broadcasts a bi-monthly radio show to the community called “The Voice of the Unborn,” educating listeners on the impacts of alcohol use.
“It’s very much appreciated, because these pregnant women are no longer as isolated as they were,” Tulugak said.
They are also more likely to have healthy pregnancies, and healthy babies, she added.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder describes a range of disabilities that result from exposure to alcohol during pregnancy.
Prenatal exposure to alcohol can cause a range of effects, including physical, brain and central nervous systems disabilities, to behavioural and emotion issues.
Canada does not gather national statistics on FASD, although it’s estimated to affect about one per cent of the population.
And its effects are undoubtedly felt across Nunavik, where in 2011, a Laval university researcher found that 61 per cent of expectant mothers drink during pregnancy.
The study concluded that alcohol is “a major risk factor to maternal and child health in [Nunavik’s] population, underscoring the need for culturally relevant and effective prevention programs.”
In Puvirnituq, the impact of Nine Months Bonding is clear to Tulugak, who says her own family has benefited.
“My oldest daughter drank with her two older children, but she gave birth again while the program was running, and she absolutely abstained from drinking with her new baby,” Tulugak said. “The program has really helped to wake up the community.”
Nine Months Bonding also encourages expecting fathers to stop drinking, to help their support their pregnant partners.
In the last year Tulugak worked with the program, in 2011 to 2012, she said Inuulitsivik’s maternity ward handled 38 pregnancies — and all but five of those mothers participated in the program.
“The message we gave is that alcohol destroys selves,” Tulugak said, “and when the baby is developing, the alcohol is destroying the cells. That is what causes the damage in the body and in the brain.
“For many years, that message wasn’t getting to us — we knew alcohol could be dangerous, but we didn’t know why.”
While the program has helped dozens of families along Nunavik’s Hudson Bay coast, Nunavimmiut along the Ungava Bay coast do not have a similar program to access.
And unlike most other birth defects, diagnosis is difficult — medical signs of FASD can be hard to recognize in babies and young children; issues can even go unnoticed until children enter their teenage years and have problems meeting societal expectations.
There has also been a difference in opinion as to how Nunavik authorities should approach pregnancy and alcohol use.
The Nunavik regional board of health and social services’ position has been to encourage women to decrease alcohol consumption during pregnancy, if women are unable to completely abstain from drinking.
Kativik Regional Government councillors have asked the board to adopt a more direct, zero-tolerance position, like that of Canada’s Public Health Agency, which says that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy.
But Tulugak says she wishes Nunavik had better access to addiction treatment centres to prevent pregnant women from drinking in the first place.
“It’s very hard for [Nunavimmiut] because we’re so far away from resources,” she said.
Click here for more information of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder