The effects of maternal use of alcohol and marijuana during pregnancy are drawing increased interest by medical professionals in Las Vegas.
That’s a good thing. Because that should mean more pregnant women, and women in general, will hear physicians increasingly stress that using either substance is dangerous to a developing fetus.
Dr. Evelyn Montalvo-Stanton, the new UNLV chair of pediatrics, says education is a critical key to the practice of sound medical care. With marijuana recently legalized in Nevada, she’s concerned pregnant mothers, who sometimes use marijuana to relieve nausea, may not be aware of the dangers that the drug carries.
“Mothers who are pregnant using marijuana can cause health problems such as low birth weight. Marijuana has the same chemicals as tobacco smoke and increases the chance of developmental problems.”
A study published in November in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, authored by UNLV Medicine physician/researchers Bobby Brar, Pooja Patil, David Jackson, Michael Gardner, James Alexander and Nora Doyle, strengthens Montalvo-Stanton’s position.
Daily marijuana use, they found, is associated with impaired fetal growth and increased placental vascular resistance, meaning blood flow to the placenta can be compromised. Other studies have shown marijuana affects the developing brain.
While studies on marijuana are relatively new — since 2012 11 states have legalized the drug for recreational use — studies on the effects of alcohol are decades old. The Institute of Medicine concluded: “Of all the substances of abuse (including cocaine, heroin and marijuana), alcohol produces by far the most serious neurobehavioral effects in the fetus.”
Still, research shows one in five women continue to drink while pregnant.
The UNLV Ackerman Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Solutions held a public symposium on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), conditions caused by the effects of maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Center officials noted FASD affects more than 10,000 children under the age of 18 in Clark County, making it more prevalent than autism.
According to Dr. Julie Beasley, Ackerman’s clinical director and a child psychologist, the effects of FASD may include abnormal facial characteristics; growth deficits; brain damage, including intellectual disability; heart, lung and kidney defects; hyperactivity and behavior problems; attention and memory problems; poor coordination and motor skill delays; difficulty with judgement and reasoning; and learning disabilities.
It isn’t a problem just confined to Nevada. Research shows that up to 5 percent of younger school age children in the U.S. have some degree of FASD.
Dr. Colleen Morris, a clinical geneticist at the Ackerman Center, says studies show no amount of alcohol use is known to be safe for a developing baby before birth. Whether the drink is beer, wine, or a shot of liquor makes no difference.
Given that 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned and women often don’t know they’re pregnant until they are six weeks along or more, it’s easy to understand how a woman could innocently drink alcohol while expecting.
“This disorder makes a good argument for planned pregnancies and birth control,” said Beasley, who suggests women who drink and are sexually active use contraception.
What UNLV Medicine is doing through research and outreach about drugs and alcohol used during pregnancy is critically important. While I believe no woman sets out to hurt her baby, I also believe many do not fully understand the risks during pregnancy. The UNLV School of Medicine and its clinical arm, UNLV Medicine, will continue to educate. We must do all we can to ensure that ignorance does not endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth.