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Pharmacist Ron Batagol calls for drinking mothers to be reassured

Australia's top health research authority should be reassuring women who have been light social drinkers during pregnancy amid concern that some will consider terminations due to unwarranted fears for their babies' health, a leading pharmacist says.

Ron Batagol, an obstetric drug information consultant, said the National Health and Medical Research Council's guidelines on drinking during pregnancy provided insufficient and potentially alarming advice about the effects of low-level drinking.

In particular, he said they did not take into account two major studies by researchers from Oxford University and University College in London that tracked about 11,000 women and their babies until they were three and five years old. The research found that children of women who had engaged in light drinking - defined as one to two drinks per week or per occasion - were not at increased risk of behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits compared with children of mothers who did not drink during pregnancy.

The research council guidelines say that for women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option, and that ''women who drank alcohol before they knew they were pregnant or during their pregnancy should be reassured that the majority of babies exposed to alcohol suffer no observable harm. The risk to the foetus from low level drinking is likely to be low.''

In a letter published in The Medical Journal of Australia on Monday, Mr Batagol said although he agreed it was ideal not to drink during pregnancy, the guidelines relied on ''poorly designed studies to support the implication that there are residual risks to the foetus from a pregnant woman consuming alcohol at a low level'' and should be clearer ''to avoid the prospect of unnecessary anxiety or contemplation of unwarranted termination''.

The pharmacist and author of Taking Medicines in Pregnancy - What's Safe and What's Not said peak health advisory and obstetrics groups in the UK, US and Canada had expressed concern about the potential for unwarranted abortions among women following low-level alcohol use during pregnancy. He said the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada now said ''healthcare providers should advise women that low-level consumption of alcohol in early pregnancy is not an indication for termination of pregnancy''.


''The time is overdue for the [council] to provide a similar statement to provide greater reassurance to women who have consumed low levels of alcohol during pregnancy,'' Mr Batagol wrote.

While research has shown sustained heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight and birth defects such as foetal alcohol syndrome, Mr Batagol said the two UK studies showed no evidence of harm from low-level use.

Mr Batagol, a former member of the Therapeutic Goods Administration advisory committee on prescribing medicines in pregnancy, said although some people would argue his nuanced message would create a ''slippery slope'' that encouraged women to drink, not informing women of the evidence was ''demeaning'', especially if they were responsible and seeking information on the risks. ''You don't use bad science to promote good social initiatives,'' he said.

Melbourne mother Jemma Boucher said she believed pregnant women should be given clearer information about the evidence because doctors seemed to give different advice.