On average six Belgian teenagers admitted to hospital daily suffering from effects of alcohol
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On average six Belgian teenagers admitted to hospital daily suffering from effects of alcohol

An average of six young people aged between 12 and 17 years are admitted to hospital every day in Belgium, suffering from the effects of drinking alcohol, according to a study by the Agence InterMutualiste (AIM), a coalition of the country’s medical insurers.

The figures for 2018 show a slight fall in the numbers compared to 2017 – from 2,334 to 2.234 for the whole year. However the figures remain disturbing, AIM said in a press release. By comparison, the numbers in the Netherlands, a country with a larger population, were between 700 and 900 a year.

AIM described as “alarming” the number of cases among the youngest of the group, aged 12 and 13 years. The number last year rose to 116, the highest ever recorded. Across the 12-17 age group as a whole, the patient is as likely to be a boy as a girl.

In the short term, alcohol can lead to a loss of consciousness, hypothermia and convulsions, with an increased risk of accidents and trauma,” said Dr Michael Callens of AIM. “The consumption of alcohol by young people can be the cause of permanent brain damage, leading to a lowering of school exam results and damaging their chances in the jobs market. In the longer term, it can also lead to cirrhosis of the liver, cardio-vascular problems and different forms of cancer.” Starting to drink alcohol at an early age can also increase the chances of developing an alcohol dependency later in life.

According to the Flemish association for problems arising from alcohol and other drugs VAD, the definition of binge drinking among adults is set at three units an hour for women and six for men (one unit of alcohol is equivalent to one 25cl glass of ordinary beer such as Jupiler or Maes). That rate of drinking can lead to hospital treatment for adults; the effects on young people are even more dangerous, AIM says.

Measures are urgently needed to reduce the medical and social consequences of under-age drinking, according to Dr Thomas Orban, a doctor in private practice in Brussels who specialises in alcohol dependency.

Prevention is essential, but regulation is too. The federal public health ministry has recommended setting the minimum legal age for purchasing alcohol at 18 years. In Belgium at the moment, it remains possible to buy beer, wine and sparkling wine from the age of 16 years. We are among the last countries in Europe not yet to have made that illegal.”

UPDATE: Federal health minister Maggie De Block has said she has no intention of raising the minimum age for buying alcohol from 16 to 18. Responding to news of the AIM study, De Block, herself a qualified doctor, said a lowering of the minimum age would not affect the figures. “Turn beer and wine into forbidden fruit and you’ll only make them more attractive,” she said. “We have to explain to young people what the risks of alcohol are. Parents have an important role to play here, as well as more generally in their choice of healthy food and drinks.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times