Researchers plan to give away free, state-funded pregnancy tests in the bathrooms of 20 Alaska bars and restaurants beginning in December.
The two-year, $400,000 University of Alaska effort aims to study if posters that warn women against drinking while pregnant work better when pasted on pregnancy test dispensers rather than simply hung on a wall. Alaska has the highest known rate of fetal alcohol syndrome in the U.S., with women of child-bearing age 20 percent more likely to binge drink here than the national average.
The study underlines new and growing interest from state governments in using pregnancy tests as a prevention tool for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, said Jody Allen Crowe, founder of a Minnesota non-profit that has installed test dispensers in bars, convenience stores and a youth center in that state. Crowe is assisting with the Alaska project.
A woman can cause full fetal alcohol syndrome in a developing fetus within a month of conception, before she is likely to know she is pregnant. While the image of "pee-stick" style test dispensers awaiting tipsy club-goers raised eyebrows when Sen. Pete Kelly announced the idea earlier this year, Crowe hopes use of pregnancy tests before partying is one day as common as designated drivers.
"This is not a strategy for the chronic alcoholic who is drinking regardless of whatever message they see," Crowe said. "This is really focused on the 50 percent of unexpected pregnancies, to find out they are pregnant as early as possible."
Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, proposed plans for free pregnancy tests as part of a multi-million dollar state effort to prevent birth defects. He said in interviews that he did not support giving away free birth control in addition to the test kits. The head of the agency that will oversee the project said researchers will ensure that condoms are available in every bathroom where the pregnancy test kits are distributed, however.
The condoms will not be paid for with the state grant, said David Driscoll, director for the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Circumpolar Health Studies, which proposed the study.
"What I'm going to try and do is place these dispensers in facilities in which there are condom dispensers or they're OK with us making condoms available," Driscoll said.
The wall-mounted pregnancy test dispensers are one foot wide, two feet tall and cost about $800 each, Crowe said. Each test will be labeled with an FASD-prevention message and cost the state about $1.50.
All told, as many as 5,000 tests will be distributed over 12 months, according to the project proposal.
"The Alaska effort is going to be very important to see empirical evidence. How does this impact the thinking of women in alcohol establishments?" Crowe said.
The institute said it planned to place the tests in three cities and rural hubs. Posters or artwork with FASD prevention messages will be shown on the dispensers and on the kits themselves. In other cities, identical messages will be framed and placed on bar bathroom walls -- but without the free test kits.
In both cases, people will be encouraged to visit a website or call a toll-free number to answer an automated survey about the project in exchange for a prize such as a $15 iTunes card. Researchers also plan to interview bar patrons and staff.
The idea, Driscoll said, is to see if the prevention messages resonate more when paired with pregnancy tests.
"That's probably a relatively small percentage of women who will see the test kit dispenser and will actually use it," he said.
By KYLE HOPKINS