Pregnant mothers who drink alcohol are giving birth to an estimated 826 children with foetal alcohol disorders a year, resulting in a projected cost to the health service of almost €750m annually, it has been claimed.

In research presented at a major international social work conference in UCD recently, senior social worker Liam Curran argued that illicit drug and alcohol use during pregnancy is a child protection issue which requires the introduction of "appropriate and sensitive measures" to protect the welfare of the unborn.

He interviewed social workers, public health nurses and other personnel in maternity hospitals to find out if maternal consumption of drugs and alcohol was a child protection concern for them.

"Findings suggest an unequivocal positive answer to the research question," the study notes. "Respondents did not view their concerns of harm for the unborn as wilful acts by its pregnant mother, but more as a matter of circumstantial factors of poor education, high socio-economic barriers and ad hoc poor delivery of state services in the prevention of such harm."

Children harmed by drug and alcohol use during pregnancy can develop a range of lifelong disabilities, including problems with their emotional, health and cognitive development.

"It is important that sensitive supportive measures are put in place for this cohort of women who use illicit drugs and alcohol, in order to prevent life-long harm to future cohorts of Irish children," the study says.

Curran pointed to separate research released last year by the government-funded Health Research Board (HEB) which estimated that an average 826 children are born in Ireland each year with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Using economic models developed in Canada, his study equates this to an estimated cost to the Irish public health system of €741m a year, given the increased supports such children require.

Curran told the Sunday Tribune that Ireland fares poorly when it comes to the provision of pre-birth risk assessment guidelines, despite the lifelong problems which children with foetal alcohol syndrome can experience.

He also noted that previous research has suggested 63% of pregnant Irish women continue to drink during pregnancy, and called for "more consistency" in the public health messages provided to pregnant mothers by health authorities.