WATERVILLE — Babies born in Maine probably will be more susceptible to physical and behavioral effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders because of higher rates of alcohol and drug use in the state compared to other parts of the country, according to a professional at a recent conference at Colby College.

During the Thursday conference on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders — an umbrella term for the conditions that occur to a person whose mother drank alcohol while pregnant — Dr. Douglas Waite said 2 percent to 5 percent of the country’s population have these conditions, and potentially up to 70 percent of children in foster care, as it’s unknown if the mothers of those children drank while pregnant.

But Waite said it’s likely the numbers for Maine are even higher. Maine ranks as one of the states with the highest level of alcohol consumption and is also one of the states hit hardest by the opiate epidemic. Both alcohol and opiates, when used by a person who is pregnant, can affect the child’s brain development.

“Nobody is getting diagnosed,” Waite said after he presented at the conference.

The condition’s effects might include physical, mental and/or learning disabilities with possible lifelong implications. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders may include an abnormal appearance, short height, low body weight, small head size, poor coordination, low intelligence, behavior problems, and problems with hearing or seeing. Those affected are more likely to have trouble in school and legal problems, participate in high-risk behavior and have their own trouble with drugs or alcohol.

Waite said these conditions often can be misdiagnosed as other things, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or post traumatic stress disorder, because of the child’s actions or inability to focus.

“These kids go up and down with their environment,” Waite said.

Because of this and an overall lack of support systems, the children often end up failing school and incarcerated.

“These are good kids, but there are no support systems,” he said.

Not enough people know about fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which can be a barrier to support, according to Waite, who spoke during the conference about why children with these conditions are not being diagnosed or treated.

Waite said one issue is that the condition is often considered a disorder and not a disability. The children might meet an intelligence level above a disability threshold, and therefore not qualify for disability services, but they still are not able to function without guidance and support.

Waite, a Colby graduate, said he would like to see a National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome affiliate in Maine to ensure there are people who know about the condition and can help provide information. The national group is a nonprofit organization that focuses on primary prevention, advocacy and support.

Waite said he has tried to look into grant funding for resources, but he added that the most powerful advocates would be parents with children affected by the condition. “Parents are the best advocates,” he said. “You can do better at a local level.”

That’s the benefit of a conference like the one on Thursday, which seeks to bring together doctors, nurses, disability rights lawyers, child advocates, juvenile and criminal attorneys, teachers, early intervention specialists and parents of children with the condition.

Waite told conference participants that the chief group of people who drink during pregnancy consists of white, college-educated women. In many cases, a woman might not know she is pregnant and continue drinking. Alcohol can harm a fetus at any time, even before a woman is aware she’s pregnant. And even though the mothers might stop drinking early in pregnancy, the babies are still at risk. Even then, Waite said, it’s difficult for a person to stop drinking if she is addicted. Most people abusing alcohol can’t stop, he said.

“We’re not good at treating alcoholism,” he said.

Fetal alcohol syndrome disorders affect an estimated 40,000 infants each year, which is more than are affected by spina bifida, Down syndrome and muscular dystrophy combined, according to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which called the condition a “hidden disability,” meaning most victims are not diagnosed until adolescence or adulthood, if at all.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, varieties of the condition include fetal alcohol syndrome, the most involved affliction on the spectrum of disorders; alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, consisting of intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior and learning; alcohol-related birth defects, including problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones or with hearing; and neurobehavioral disorders associated with prenatal alcohol exposure, resulting in problems with thinking and memory, behavorial problems and trouble with day-to-day living.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis