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Where govt fails FAS victims

Karabo Keepile, Cornia Pretorius

The government should be doing more to deal with the high numbers of children with foetal alcohol syndrome.

The government should be doing more to deal with the high numbers of children with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

According to NGO’s and caretakers of children with FAS, there is no comprehensive national policy to tackle the syndrome, and the various affected departments such as health, social development and education appear to be working in isolation from each other.

University of Pretoria (UP) Professor Kirstie Rendall-Mkosi says on a national level the government is not “realising or recognising” the scope of the FAS problem.

“They tend to focus more on broader awareness and the educational angle and not on skills-building, so there isn’t a comprehensive approach toward the needs of people who have this syndrome”, says Rendall-Mkosi, who is from UP’s Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Project.

The lack of a coherent, focused government policy undermines the battle against FAS and this is highlighted in a province like the Western Cape, one of the areas worst affected by FAS, where even funding is hard to come by.

One of South Africa’s leading NGO’s dealing with FAS, the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) says the only financial support that they have ever received from any government department is from the Western Cape department of social development.

“We received R1.6-million for the development of a FAS prevention and intervention project in the Witzenberg District from 2007 to 2009,” says Leana Olivier, FARR’s CEO.

But Olivier said the Department of Health in the Western Cape has done very little to tackle the FAS.

According to her the Health Department “does not have a FAS prevention and management policy or a provincial FAS programme or even a focus on any of the existing programmes.”

“Numerous attempts to involve the provincial office in any discussion or even participation in FAS prevention strategies have failed,” she said.

As a result, FARR has been responsible for all the FAS-prevalence studies done to date and although government departments (such as education) often ask for the prevalence rates of specific areas for planning purposes “these studies are costly and there is currently no funding available to conduct these studies”, she says.

But Health Department spokesperson, Fidel Hadebe, says FAS is a “strategic priority area” and it had “two policy documents” that deal with the matter.

These, he explains, include “policy guidelines for the management and prevention of genetic disorders, birth defects and disabilities as well as national guidelines for the care and prevention of the most common genetic disorders, birth defects and disabilities.” Hadebe says the health department’s preventative strategies go beyond handing out pamphlets but include radio and personal communication through health Imbizo’s.

The extent of the problem of FAS affects various sectors of society. One of the worst hit areas is education, which means teachers have to find ways to support the learning of learners with FAS.

But there is no special education policy for children with FAS. They are catered for under White Paper 6 on Special Needs Education, which means the barriers to learning that children with FAS are experiencing have to be addressed through appropriate support to the mainstream schools that accommodate them and the teachers who teach them.

Paddy Attwell, director of communications, in the western cape education department (WCED), says the department employs about 500 learner support teachers and is establishing special support units in schools to help them deal with learners with special needs and where access to special schools is limited, for example, in some rural areas.”

The WCED has 65-learner support specialists based in its district offices that are facilitating and coordinating programmes to provide special learner support in schools.

These initiatives, however, are not targeted specifically at children with FAS, but at all children with special needs, including those with HIV, physical and mental disabilities.

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