Government asks UNC to develop school program about alcohol and birth defects

August 28, 2000

CHAPEL HILL -- The Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is developing an educational program for middle-school students about alcohol-related birth defects.

The project is supported through a contract from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health and medical alumni donations.

"The impetus behind this program is that maternal alcohol abuse is the leading known cause of mental retardation in this country," said Dr. Fulton T. Crews, the center's director and professor of pharmacology at the UNC-CH School of Medicine. "This is an outreach activity that will benefit the children of North Carolina, and we aim to make it fit into a variety of different places for different grades."

Dr. Kathleen K. Sulik, a Center for Alcohol Studies expert on birth defects and professor of cell biology and anatomy, will spearhead the program with neurobiologist Dr. Marianne Meeker. Sulik said many alcohol-related birth defects occur early in the pregnancy, usually before women even know they're expecting.

"These are problems that cannot be fixed - they are lifelong disabilities," Sulik said. "So it just makes sense to educate young people about these problems when they're establishing their values and are at the threshold of establishing their drinking and sexual patterns."

Sulik added that the warning labels carried on alcoholic beverages since the 1980s don't adequately represent the danger that a woman's drinking can pose to an unborn baby.

"In fact, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the incidence of reported drinking in pregnant women has increased dramatically - up four-fold since the advent of warning labels," she said.

Added Crews: "There's also concern among scholars that amounts of alcohol not associated with severe mental retardation are still having detrimental effects. We may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg."

Why is alcohol consumption increasing among women? The Carolina researchers said the answer remains unclear. Still, studies indicate that some women may be at greater risk than others for damaging their baby with lower amounts of alcohol.

The educational curriculum will include hands-on experiments to enhance understanding of the scientific basis of developmental abnormalities resulting from prenatal alcohol use.

"For example, we've developed an experiment involving brine shrimp, commonly referred to as 'sea monkeys,'" Sulik said. "In one day, students can observe how incubating shrimp eggs in alcohol affects their development. We also plan to make the curriculum Web-based to allow students and teachers to access it off the Internet."

The Carolina team will develop the curriculum over the next year with the help of local science teachers from Orange, Durham, Chatham and Alamance counties. "These teachers already have provided extremely valuable input and will continue to provide advice as to what does and doesn't work in a middle-school educational setting," Sulik said.

Dr. Dorothea E. de Zafra, the science education program coordinator at NIAAA, said officials there were excited about the curriculum.

"We hope it will be a model for future collaboration in science education between NIAAA and major academic alcohol research centers in the United States," she said. "We expect the educational program to excite young teens and pre-teens about doing science as they explore for themselves the effects of alcohol on developing organisms. Student excitement always has a multiplier effect at home - which a lecturing approach in school toward alcohol use never does - so it would not be surprising if family members of childbearing age learn from these kids about the risks of drinking during pregnancy."
By LESLIE H. LANG UNC-CH School of Medicine

Note to media: Dr. Fulton Crews can be reached at (919) 966-5678 or
Dr. Kathleen Sulik can be reached at (919) 966-3208 or

University of North Carolina Health Care

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