UA College of Medicine Steele Center Researcher Receives $1.25 Million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Study the Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

"Pediatric geneticist Christopher Cunniff, MD, to study FAS prevalence in children in Arizona and Nevada and integrate FAS surveillance into existing programs that survey cases of autism spectrum disorders, mental retardation, Duchenne and Becker muscular

TUCSON, Ariz. –– Pediatric geneticist Christopher Cunniff, MD, a professor in the University of Arizona College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics and researcher with the Steele Children’s Research Center, received a five-year $1.25 million surveillance grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in children.

The project, named “Arizona Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Surveillance Network (AZ FASSNET),” will study FAS prevalence in Arizona and Nevada. Arizona was one of three awardees — the other two were Colorado and Western New York State.

“This work builds on a previous FAS surveillance grant which was awarded to us in Arizona by the CDC from 1997 to 2003,” said Dr. Cunniff. “We also are building on our surveillance programs in autism spectrum disorders, mental retardation and Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy, which also are funded by the CDC and are ongoing.”

FAS is the most severe disorder in the diverse group of structural, developmental and behavioral abnormalities known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) that result from maternal alcohol use during pregnancy. FAS is widely considered the most common preventable cause of birth defects and developmental disabilities in developed countries.

The personal burden of FAS may be striking, and affected children and their families often find it difficult to cope with the medical, developmental, adaptive and social effects of this disorder. Estimates of how frequently FAS occurs vary widely among studies in the United States and in other countries. FAS and partial FAS occur in 90 out of 1,000 children in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, while the highest reported frequency in the United States is about 4 children per 1,000 in Alaskan Natives.

The Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Surveillance Network (FASSNET) previously was funded by the CDC to develop a population-based, multiple source surveillance system for FAS. The methods of the FASSNET surveillance system have been published as well as results from the participating sites. In 2008, the CDC reported results of a planning meeting to determine best practices for population-based surveillance of FAS.

“We will partner with the Nevada State Health Division to obtain a combined surveillance population of almost 140,000 births per year,” said Dr. Cunniff. “The objective is to integrate FAS surveillance into the existing population-based surveillance programs in each state, which include a program that identifies and reports cases of autism spectrum disorders and mental retardation in Maricopa County; one that conducts surveillance in Arizona for Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy; and the surveillance programs for birth defects in Arizona and Nevada.”

“The goal of this multistate project is to provide case workers with better tools to diagnose FAS sooner. This will result in earlier referrals for treatment that will ultimately improve outcomes for the children suffering the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome,” said Dr. Cunniff.
The University of Arizona, University Physicians Healthcare and University Medical Center work together to care for patients, educate medical students, train resident-physicians and conduct clinical and basic research. The UA Steele Children’s Research Center and UMC are working together to build Diamond Children’s Medical Center (, now under construction and scheduled to open in 2010. Diamond Children's will be Arizona’s only pediatric inpatient medical center connected to an academic research facility – the Steele Center (