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Thursday, 13 January, 2000, 12:32 GMT
'Put folic acid in bread'

Putting folic acid in bread would prevent defects

Folic acid should be added to all flour to prevent the birth of many handicapped babies, says a government scientific committee.

Women are already advised by the government to take folic acid supplements at the time of conception, but doctors are concerned that many pregnancies are unplanned, and in other cases the advice is disregarded.

Campaigners have long suggested that folic acid should be added to flour for inclusion in bread, and now the influential Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA) has backed them.

Their report, published on Thursday, estimates that of 93 babies affected by "neural tube defects", such as Spina Bifida, 38 could have been prevented by the fortification of flour.

In 1998, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there were 107 babies born with neural tube defects, and in Scotland alone there were 74 in 1997.

In addition - the vast majority of women whose pre-natal scans reveal a problem will opt for a termination.

Fortification of flour would involve adding 240 mcg to every 100g of food products - this would yield a 41% reduced risk of all neural tube defects.

Pioeering surgery can correct spina bifida in the unborn child
Health minister Yvette Cooper welcomed the report, and said: "It shows the importance of folic acid intake in preventing the tragic occurrence of neural tube defects in unborn children and babies.

"We are very keen to encourage measures to prevent spina bifida and other defects, and will shortly be consulting widely on these conclusions."

Tony Britton, from the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, said: "My organisation has been campaigning for the fortification of flour for five years.

"We're delighted that the government is poised to take the COMA recommendations on board."

Permanent paralysis

Spina bifida - the most common form of neural tube defect - develops very early in pregnancy, and is caused by the failure of the vertebrae of the spine to develop properly and enclose the delicate spinal cord to protect it.

The resulting damage can lead to paralysis, which can make the child wheelchair-bound or reliant on crutches. There can also be bowel or bladder difficulties.

Many children with this condition also have hydrocephalus, or water on the brain.

Surgery on babies with spina bifida is often carried out within 24 hours of birth to minimise the damage to the exposed nerves.

However, some surgery has been carried out even earlier - before the baby is born.

Other, more severe neural tube defects include anencephaly, in which the baby has an underdeveloped brain and incomplete skull.

Most infants born with anencephaly do not survive more than a few hours after birth.

Another, encephalocele, results in a hole in the skull through which brain tissue protrudes.

Most babies with encephalocele do not live or are severely retarded, although early surgery has been able to save a few children.

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See also:
16 Sep 99 |  Health
Folic acid campaigns 'not working'
18 Nov 99 |  Health
Benefits of folic acid reinforced
20 Oct 99 |  Health
Hope for spina bifida babies

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