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World Health Organization not proposing an alcohol ban for ‘women of childbearing age’

A “first” draft from the international health agency had many raising their eyebrows in surprise. It’s likely a case of muddled messaging.

  • The WHO released a first draft of a global alcohol action plan, suggesting interventions to reduce alcohol-related disorders and deaths. 

  • The plan says “appropriate attention” should be given to the “prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age“, but does not suggest any outright bans.

  • Of particular relevance to South Africa are measures to reduce the prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome disorder, as the country is estimated to have the highest rates in the world.

Has the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed that “women of ‘child bearing age’ be banned from drinking alcohol”? That was the claim made by South African radio talk show host Aldrin Sampear on 17 June 2021, in a tweet reshared over 1,000 times. 

 

 

Many Twitter users responded, saying the proposed ban was sexist. Some compared it to the dystopian book and television series The Handmaid’s Tale, where a Christian fundamentalist society forces fertile women to have children. 

Other news outlets, including the Irish Post and the Daily Mail, also reported on a proposed ban. South Africa’s TimesLive reported that the WHO wanted women of childbearing age to “abstain” from drinking alcohol. 

Are these reports correct? We checked. 

‘Draft doesn’t recommend abstinence for all women’

In June 2021 the WHO published the first draft of its global alcohol action plan for 2022 to 2030. It is intended “to strengthen implementation of the global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol”. 

But WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević told Africa Check that media reports of the draft were not accurate. 

“The current draft of WHO’s global action plan does not recommend abstinence for all women who are of an age at which they could become pregnant,” he explained. 

“However it does seek to raise awareness of the serious consequences that can result from drinking alcohol while pregnant, even when the pregnancy is not yet known.”

The WHO considers women of childbearing or reproductive age to be aged 15 to 49 years old.

Proposed interventions don’t include ban on alcohol

The draft action plan, which will be revised after consultation, suggests a number of interventions to reduce rates of alcohol use disorders and alcohol-related deaths. 

This includes raising awareness about the risks of alcohol abuse by observing an “international day or week of awareness on the harmful use of alcohol”. 

The action plan says: “Appropriate attention should be given to prevention of the initiation of drinking among children and adolescents, prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age, and protection of people from pressures to drink, especially in societies with high levels of alcohol consumption where heavy drinkers are encouraged to drink even more.”

It goes on to discuss measures that member states should take in order to raise awareness about the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy and reduce the incidence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). 

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause irreversible harm to the foetus that results in developmental and cognitive issues. These issues are known as FASD

But none of these proposed measures include banning women of childbearing age from drinking.

South Africa estimated to have highest rate of foetal alcohol syndrome globally

A 2017 meta-analysis, a study that combines the results of other studies to develop a singular conclusion, found that South Africa has the highest prevalence of FASD in the world. 

Studies estimated the prevalence at 111.1 per 1,000 population. The Western Cape province recorded the highest rates. 

Dr Lizahn Gracia Cloete is a senior lecturer in the division of occupational therapy at Stellenbosch University and has conducted research on FASD. She told Africa Check that while focusing on preventing pregnant women from drinking alcohol may seem to be a logical solution, it would be a “band-aid approach”. 

“In my experience, women consume alcohol during pregnancy as a result of struggling to cope with emotional ill-health as a result of domestic and other forms of abuse,” she said. 

Cloete said a range of systemic issues contribute to drinking during pregnancy, such as poor health infrastructure for women’s health, a lack of legal protection and high alcohol use patterns in society in general.

Conclusion: WHO recommends attention be given to preventing drinking but doesn’t propose ban

Talk radio host Aldrin Sampear and a number of local and international publications reported that the WHO was proposing that women of childbearing age be banned from consuming alcohol.

The first draft of the WHO’s global alcohol action plan recommends “special attention” be given to preventing alcohol consumption among a number of groups, including pregnant women and women of childbearing age.

However, the organisation said it did not propose that women of childbearing age should be banned from drinking alcohol. It instead proposed raising awareness around the impact of alcohol abuse on foetal development. 

We therefore rate this claim incorrect.

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