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Free pregnancy tests in bars an effort to curb Alaska’s FASD rates

By KTVA Alaska Photojournalist: Jared Mazurek - 11:23 PM June 20, 2014

Free pregnancy tests in bars?

It’s a notion that’s thrust Alaska into the national spotlight.

“It’s just an unusual conversation and unusual approach. It’s caught people’s attention,” said Janet Johnston with the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies.

Alaska has a unique and alarming relationship with alcohol and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, according to Johnston.

“Alaska has the highest prevalence of FASD,” Johnston said. “This may also have to do with the fact that we also have high rates of drinking among women of child-bearing age.”

Considering those rates, Johnston says it made sense for the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies to try a different approach in attempt to curb those figures. Enter free pregnancy tests in Alaska bars.

“I think of it almost as a teaching moment,” Johnston said. “If someone is drinking at a bar and they see the test, they may just think about it a little more. Also if someone takes the test and finds out they’re pregnant, that hopefully will also have an effect on their drinking.”

Johnston says the point of this study is to find out what will send the clearest message to women who might be drinking when they shouldn’t. So, in some bars and restaurants, researchers will be setting up posters with warning messages to deter possibly pregnant women from drinking.

In other bars, they’ll set up pregnancy test dispensers along with those warnings.  Researchers will ask women who see the posters and dispensers to fill out surveys and the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies will use that data to see which method makes the greatest impact.

Some that question the purpose and method of this study say girls’ night out might not be the best time for a woman to find out she’s pregnant. But mother of two Chelsea Shipley says knowing as soon as possible helped her to avoid the risk of FASD.

“With my first child, I was actually with a group of friends who were drinking and I was late and I wasn’t sure if I should be drinking or not,” Shipley said. “I took [the pregnancy test] in the bathroom while everyone was out in the room partying and I took it out and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m positive.'”

With her own experience, coupled with 15 years of working in Anchorage bars, Shipley says the pregnancy test dispensers could be just what Alaska’s unsuspecting mothers need.

“It’s worth a try because if it helps one woman, it’s helping the baby,” Shipley said.

The pregnancy test dispensers will start appearing in bars and restaurants in December. Researchers expect to have the results of their study within two years.

In the meantime, the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies says they will offer free counseling to women who test positive.

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