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Reflecting on the International Conference on FASD

Earlier this year FARE’s Senior Policy Officer Sarah Ward attended the 5th International Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in Vancouver, Canada.

I’m not really sure how someone can sum up a four-day conference with approximately 700 delegates from 26 countries but I’ll give it a try. The words ‘overwhelming, exhausting and inspiring’ spring to mind. But it was also more than this. It was about making strong professional connections, forming new friendships, and sharing new information about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

The conference was officially opened by Emily Travis  and Myles Himmelreich, two of the most inspiring and motivating speakers I think I’ve ever seen.

Both are also individuals living with FASD. They let us know that although their lives have been affected by FASD, they do not allow it to define who they are. As the conference rolled on, so too did the list of inspirational speakers, including a lady from Ghana by the name of Regina Amanorbea Dodoo. A force to be reckoned with, Regina got every Government Minister in Ghana to sign a banner protecting the rights of people with a disability. She’s now working to ensure that each Minister makes good on the commitment they made in signing the banner!  And there were many more from across the world talking about the work that is taking place to address FASD in their countries.

It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about the work of our near neighbours in New Zealand in developing their diagnostic capacity through Paediatric Health Services. Australians were also well represented, with around 30-35 in total. It was nice to finally meet some of the people that we work closely with, even if it meant travelling to the other side of the world to do so!

For me, the highlight of the conference was a special event called ‘Shining a light on Canada’s multi-layered approach to FASD prevention.’ This event placed FASD prevention at the centre of alcohol policy discussions, and focused on policy reform, research, service provision, and community advocacy.

The event stressed the importance of networks, the importance of young people speaking to other young people about FASD, and the stories of women who have had children with FASD. The evening demonstrated that a network is needed from the national to local and to the individual level with people at each point receiving consistent messages and information about preventing FASD, and the harms caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

I was lucky enough to be invited to present on the role of non-government organisations in changing FASD policy in Australia, using the development and launch of the Australian FASD Action Plan 2013-2016 as an example. My presentation focused on why it is important for all health professionals to understand how policy is created, and how to make the most of windows of opportunity in order to change policy. I also talked about the importance of building coalitions and having a solid grounding in the evidence and research on the issue.

It can be intimidating presenting to people from Canada and America where the response to FASD is so much further ahead than here in Australia. For example, Canada and America both have diagnostic clinics, support services, and educational curriculums that support both students and teachers on FASD. There is also greater awareness in the broader community about FASD and the risks of consuming alcohol during pregnancy.

Government commitment has been central to both Canada and America’s response to FASD. In 1996 FASD was identified as a ‘national health concern’ in Canada, and in 1999 the Government of Canada created the National FASD Initiative, dedicating an initial $11million (CAD) to fund it. This was followed with development of the First Nations, Inuit and Aboriginal FASD Program and these initiatives remain central to Canada’s FASD efforts.

In America, the FASD Center for Excellence was launched in 2001 as part of the Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In 2008 the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) funded five FASD Regional Training Centres to develop, implement and evaluate training for health and medical students and practitioners on FASD. More recently, in February 2013, three US Senators reintroduced a bill ‘Advancing FASD Research, Prevention, and Services Act, which, if enacted, would authorise $27 million in funding to improve research, prevention, and other services for FASD from 2014 to 2018.

In Australia we nervously wait for the Federal Budget release in May, and hope for a similar commitment to FASD by our Government.

It will also soon be time to host our own conference; the Australasian FASD Conference will be held on 19-20 November 2013 in Brisbane. The call for abstracts is now open, and I’m looking forward to another conference that is just as overwhelming and just as inspiring as the Canadian one.

Sarah Ward

Sarah Ward

Sarah is a Senior Policy Officer at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), specialising in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), and alcohol-related family and domestic violence. Sarah is also responsible for FARE’s Women Want to Know campaign which encourages health professionals to talk to women about alcohol consumption and pregnancy.

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