MU researcher receives $1 million from CDC for birth defect prevention efforts

October 03, 2014

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs), like Autism Spectrum Disorders, manifest in childhood as physical abnormalities along with social, attention and learning difficulties that range in severity and continue into adulthood. However, unlike other birth defects or developmental disorders, FASDs can be prevented if mothers do not consume alcohol during pregnancy. Despite the ease of prevention, one in 13 pregnant women report using alcohol during pregnancy, putting their babies at risk for developing FASDs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. Now, MU researcher Leigh Tenkku Lepper has received more than $1 million from the CDC to enhance prevention efforts.

"We know that health care professionals play a crucial role in the prevention, identification and management of FASDs," said Tenkku Lepper, director for research for the MU School of Social Work and the Master in Public Health program. "OBGYNs are on the first line of defense to inform pregnant women about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy and to identify these behaviors so they don't continue. With this grant, we will reach out to OBGYNs directly to provide education and training to take an active role in discussing alcohol use with their patients. We also will target mental health professionals to provide education about FASDs to those in social work positions. Overall, prevention is a major emphasis, and we will look for novel ways to embed screening and brief intervention training within clinical and agency environments."

With the addition of her recent grants, Tenkku Lepper has received more than $2 million from the CDC to support her research on FASD. Previously, Tenkku Lepper received CDC funding to lead the Midwest Regional Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Training Center, a group of individuals who work to increase knowledge and education regarding the prevention, identification and treatment of FASDs. The previous grant funded the training of medical and allied health professionals, social workers, nurses, psychologists and other professionals to train others about FASD. With the new CDC grant, Tenkku Lepper will implement an FASD Practice Implementation Center, through which she will develop, deliver and disseminate FASD training programs directly to health care professionals in practice settings, including OBGYNS and social workers, who interact with expecting mothers. The CDC has funded five other Practice Implementation Centers throughout the U.S. that will cater to other regions and disciplines.

Additionally, Tenkku Lepper received funding to improve the national network of Practice Implementation Centers and establish partnerships among the centers and national medical societies, professional organizations and constituent groups. These partnerships highlight a multi-faceted approach to improve FASD prevention and practice that includes medical and professional organizations in co-branding, promoting and disseminating training to their members. Collaborations also connect health care providers to community resources to benefit those living with FASDs. Tenkku Lepper will be working directly with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the University of Texas at Austin as national partners in this effort.

"These national partnerships will help increase awareness of and seek ways to encourage wider acceptance of our main message: no safe amount, no safe time and no safe type of alcohol exists during pregnancy," Tenkku Lepper said. "Previously, our prevention efforts have lacked the backing of national organizations, which made it harder to increase awareness of FASDs. Now, we're working on all fronts to help pregnant women know the dangers of drinking so FASDs can be prevented and eventually eradicated. If moms-to-be know the dangers, why would they take that risk?"
Tenkku Lepper is the director for research for the School of Social Work, which is part of the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences. She is also the director for research and teaches in the MU Master of Public Health Program. For more information about FASDs, visit or

University of Missouri-Columbia

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