By John Harvey
IMPOVERISHED pregnant teenage girls in Nelson Mandela Bay are drinking heavily so their babies can be born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder – enabling them to qualify for a R1 200 disability grant rather than the R280 child grant.
This horrifying phenomenon has emerged as the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) prepares to launch an investigation into the problem in the Eastern Cape.
Sheryldene Young, 28, of Timothy Valley near Malabar, who has a child with FASD, still sees young mothers deliberately drinking while pregnant.
"I was very stupid to drink while I was pregnant and I always regret it. It is very bad here [in Timothy Valley]. Out of every 100 girls, 99 are getting pregnant and drinking to get the grant,” said the single mother.
Her five-year-old daughter is one of the rare and lucky children who has managed to overcome her affliction, and will be attending school next year.
"When she was about one year old she could not do anything and she is still very small. But thanks to Aunty Gennie [Hendricks, the manager of Miracle Kids at Cheshire Homes in Cleary Estate] she is almost completely rehabilitated.”
South Africa has had the highest number of FASD cases in the world since 2002, according to the World Health Organisation.
The Western Cape and Northern Cape currently have the highest rate in the country, but there are growing fears that the alcohol-related deficiency is drastically increasing in the Eastern Cape.
About 90% of pupils in some Grade 1 classes at impoverished schools in the province suffer from the disorder, making teaching "unbearable”.
In South Africa, 14 out of every 1 000 people suffer from FASD, according to Medical Research Council (MRC) estimates. In the Northern and Western Cape, this figure jumps to 85 people out of every 1 000.
Hendricks said some 70% of the 38 children at the centre, who range in age from six months to 17 years old, exhibited symptoms of FASD.
"For most, leading what is considered a normal life will never be possible, particularly since at the end of each day they return to homes where alcohol abuse is rife.
"This is a big, big problem in the northern areas and I am sure it is happening elsewhere in the province. The problem is that the mothers who caused their children to be impaired will never acknowledge that they are to blame,” Hendricks said.
"It’s a vicious cycle because no matter how much we try to rehabilitate them, the lifestyle that led to them being born with a deficiency continues. All that happens is that the next child also has FASD.
"The parents never tell you that the child suffers from these symptoms, However, because of my training I can tell straight away that they have FASD. About 70% of the kids here have it. It is so, so sad.”
Hendricks said she regularly saw young girls falling pregnant and giving birth to children with FASD, and deliberately repeating the process.
"They do this so they can get a disability grant, R1 200, as opposed to R280 for a normal child support grant.”
FARR chief executive Leana Olivier said she had been contacted by a number of Eastern Cape citizens over the last couple of months expressing their concern about a suspected high FASD prevalence rate in the province.
"We have been requested to do a prevalence study in this province and are currently liaising with prospective funders,” she said.
Child Welfare East London director Soraya Leeuw said FASD had also become "a big problem” in Buffalo City.
Leeuw said a Grade 1 teacher in Buffalo Flats had recently reported to her that 90% of her class had FASD.
Additional reporting by Barbara Hollands and Janine Oelofse
This is a shortened version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, September 15, 2012.