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Study aims to uncover hidden alcohol use during pregnancy

Maternity clinics are collecting anonymised urine samples in Helsinki and Lahti for substance abuse research.

Ultraljudsbild på ett foster.

Researchers plan to test pregnant women’s urine for drugs, nicotine and alcohol to uncover hidden use during pregnancy. The study aims to gain a better understanding of substance abuse during pregnancy to help target therapies for children exposed in utero.

Researchers are planning to test one thousand urine sample from pregnant women in Helsinki and Lahti for traces of alcohol, nicotine and cannabis.

The samples will be anonymised, according Mirjami Jolma, a researcher specialising in pediatric neurology. Jolma’s study aims to draw information that women are not inclined to reveal during discussions with maternity clinic nurses or divulge in health surveys.

"These are sensitive issues and when asked, most will deny drinking during pregnancy," Jolma explained, adding that alcohol can be detected in urine five days after consumption.

Cognitive impairment

Jolma said Finland does not have accurate figures on how many women abuse substances during pregnancy or how many children this behaviour affects.

"International studies suggest that two to five percent of kids have been exposed to significant amounts of alcohol during pregnancy," she explained.

Jolma said many of the children arriving at child psychiatrists’ offices were exposed to alcohol and tobacco in utero.

"It’s a pity we often don’t have information on potential exposure which would help us make more accurate diagnoses."

While analysing anonymous samples won’t help anyone on the individual level, information on maternal substance use could eventually help treat exposed children.

Foetuses exposed to alcohol typically have challenges learning, hyperactivity problems and trouble concentrating, according to Jolma.

"We often think that they need help being brought up and that they are underachievers. But in reality, the root of the problem may be the alcohol they were exposed to before they were born that caused a permanent brain disorder," she explained.

Jolma’s study has been collecting samples since last autumn from Helsinki Women’s Hospital and the Prenatal Screening Unit on Bulevardi. Päijät-Häme Central Hospital’s maternity clinic also provided samples. This spring the collection of urine samples will begin at maternity clinics in Lahti as well as in Helsinki’s Kallio district.

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