What we do and don’t know about FASD in Aotearoa

Disordered is a multi-part Stuff Circuit investigation into Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in New Zealand. Watch the documentary or view the full project.

The only figures we have are a guess — New Zealand has never done a prevalence study. 

But based on international research that around 3% of births may be affected, the Ministry of Health estimates 1800 babies are born each year with FASD.

Experts say in reality the numbers are likely to be much higher because of factors such as our binge drinking culture. Neuropsychologist Dr Valerie McGinn estimates the figure in New Zealand is more like 5% of births.

In the year ended March 2021 there were 57105 live births which would mean, on Dr McGinn’s measure, 2855 were born with FASD.

Estimates of the annual cost to the government per person with FASD vary, but the Ministry of Health says a very conservative estimate would be $15000, which would mean an annual cost of at least $450 million. Add to that estimates of productivity loss due to morbidity and premature mortality from FASD, of $49 million to $200 million per year.

That’s based on an estimate (likely an underestimate) of the number of New Zealanders with FASD. It doesn’t include the cost of investigating cases where people with FASD have offended, or if they’re imprisoned, the costs of their incarceration.

Evidence from Canada and Australia suggests that 10-36% of prisoners are affected by FASD. New Zealand prisoners have not had wide-scale testing for FASD. 

There is a disproportionate impact on Māori: FASD is greater in indigenous corrections populations than non-indigenous, and Māori make up 52.7% of the prison population, despite being only 16% of the population. 

The figures are worse in women’s prisons, where Māori account for 63% of inmates.

There has been no research on FASD and female prisoners. 

It’s estimated that 50% of children and young people in the care of Oranga Tamariki are affected by FASD, and Māori make up 59% of children in Oranga Tamariki care. It is very likely that a great proportion of those children in care who are affected by FASD are Māori.


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Disordered is a multi-part Stuff Circuit investigation into Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in New Zealand. Watch the documentary or view the full project.

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