Taking folic acid 'could stop defects in 50 babies every year'
More than 50 babies a year could be spared being born with a birth defect if women at risk of becoming pregnant took daily folic acid supplements, an expert has warned.
Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, issued the warning as a new campaign was launched to urge all sexually active women to take the daily B vitamin, folic acid, through a 400 microgram supplement.
The campaign by Safefood has been renewed amid concerns that only one in four women are taking folic acid before becoming pregnant.
This is despite the fact that sufficient daily amounts of folic acid can cut the chances of having a baby with a neural tube defect, the most common being spina bifida.
Some groups of women, such as those who are obese, epileptic or diabetic, need to take a higher daily dose of 500 micrograms because they are at even greater risk, warned Dr Mahony.
She was speaking after the Irish Independent revealed that the Holles Street Master warned in her hospital's annual clinical report that more than a third of expectant mothers attending the hospital were now overweight and one in eight was obese.
"It is very rare that you have an opportunity to prevent two out of three cases of a really serious disease. We still have a low rate of women taking folic acid on becoming pregnant," she said yesterday. "The brain forms really early. It may have happened before a woman realises she is pregnant."
Dr Mahony said the need to take the supplement, even if a woman is not planning to have a child, was due to the high number of unplanned pregnancies.
It is important to take it in supplement form, she explained, because it is not possible to get enough of it through foods such as leafy vegetables.
"If we could get all women to make it part of their routine, like brushing their teeth and taking their folic acid, it would be fantastic."
She added that it was not possible to overdose on folic acid and it also had other health benefits, such as helping blood cells. It costs around two cents a day.
The rate of neural tube defects fell between 2005 and 2006 but has risen again in recent years to around 1.04 per 1,000 births.
The new campaign was backed by Prof Michael Turner, UCD Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Coombe Hospital, who said: "Taking a 400 microgram folic acid supplement every day can potentially prevent two-thirds of neural tube defects annually."
Junior minister for Health Promotion Marcella Corcoran Kennedy stressed that it was "so important that our folic acid message reaches women, not just those thinking about having a baby".
Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of human health and nutrition with Safefood, pointed out: "There has been some recent debate about fortification of foods with folic acid but this is still some way off. Even with fortified foods, taking the daily supplement provides the best protection of the unborn baby's spine and brain".
Women should take the supplement when they are at risk of conceiving and continue to take it for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.