Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in Native American Communities: Inadequate Education and Inaccessible Health Services

Early Childhood Interventions September 13, 2017

Isn’t it unfortunate that there are preventable diseases, disorders, and conditions that still occur? As a nation that claims to value children, it is even more unfortunate that many people do not take plausible precautions when they could prevent later consequences. However, with the scientific and medical advancements that are constantly being discovered and implemented in the U.S., we have established a system that compensates for the lack of prevention with early intervention services. That is, of course, if you are aware of and have resources to access the use of preventative and intervening resources. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) is an example of this issue.  FASD is completely preventable. In some areas of the U.S., the number of children identified with FASD has decreased since1973 (Jones and Smith) when the disorder was first identified.  However, the Native American community continues to experience a disproportionate number of children with FASD. It is estimated that 29.9 American Indian infants out of every 10, 000 live births have FASD.

FASD is one of the most prevalent disorders that Native Americans face. FASD is a spectrum disorder characterized by structural anomalies and behavioral and neurocognitive disabilities in children resulting from a mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy (Beckett, 2011). Members of the Native American community experience high rates of alcoholism, and women tend to drink during their pregnancies and during labor, women use alcohol and drugs to numb their labor pains (Beckett, 2011). This alcohol use may be due to the lack of awareness about the dangers of alcohol consumption during pregnancy to unborn children.

Currently, there are programs specifically designed to educate the Native American community and provide resources for them. With help from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) and the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS), the Navajo Nation FASD Prevention Program, developed a creative and culturally sensitive program that has aided over 40,000 members of their tribe (Beckett, 2011). Unfortunately, because this program is only open to members of Navajo Nation, other Native Americans tribes cannot access it. However, SAMSHA and NOFAS attempt to provide resources throughout the entire Native American population.  One innovative program was established by Morgan Fawcett, who is affected by FASD.  He travels throughout the U.S. explaining FASD, discussing prevention strategies, and providing services needed for those affected by FASD (Ulen, 2011). Although the efforts taken by these organizations and people yield positive effects, they have not caused long-term change in the communities.

Members of Native American communities are almost two times as likely to have FASD than white Americans not only due to the lack of education, but also because of the lack of appropriate medicine and access to clinics. The inability to seek assistance may play a part in the higher alcohol consumption by the Native American population. The Indian Health Service (IHS) is supposed to provide “federal health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives” (Indian Health Service). However, with their limited number of hospitals, health centers, and health stations, members of the communities cannot access the appropriate treatment or therapy they may need to moderate their alcohol consumption. The hospitals and health stations that members can use to obtain intervention are limited, and they may be located very far from the community. Although the primary goal of the IHS is to provide health care for American Indians, only 20% of community members use the  services due to lack of accessibility. For example, a woman from the Assiniboine Tribe on the Fort Belknap Reservation drove over 35 miles to reach the health station, and waited for hours to receive her prescription, only to realize upon her arrival back home that she had been given the wrong medication (King, 2016).

In order to decrease the rate of FASD in Native American communities, the IHS, in addition to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services and the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, need to create culturally sensitive programs that can adequately educate people about FASD and provide resources for the Native American communities. To address intervention, the IHS should develop more services and supports  closer to reservations or provide free transportation. A key factor in addressing FASD is educating leaders from the communities so they can disseminate the importance of sobriety before and during pregnancy while also explaining what resources are available to families if a child is affected by FASD. These improvements could help to significantly decrease the high rates of FASD in the Native American population in the U.S.


Indian Health Service. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ihs.gov

Jones, K. L. and Smith, D. W. (1973) Recognition of the fetal alcohol syndrome in early infancy. Lancet, 999–1001.

King, J. (2016). Indian Health Service Problems Under Scrutiny by Senate Panel. News Talk KGVO. Retrieved from http://newstalkkgvo.com/indian-health-service-problems-under-scrutiny-by-senate-panel/

Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity: A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. (2001). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Ch. 4. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44242/.

Ulen, E. N. (2011). Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Rate Higher Among American Indians. Indian Country Today

Media Network. Retrieved from http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/09/05/fetal-alcohol-syndrome-rate-higher-among-american-indians-48085

Bria Marley (C’17)