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Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 02:51 GMT 03:51 UK
Folic acid message 'unheeded'
Folic acid can be added to bread
Many women are still unaware that taking folic acid during pregnancy can help to minimise the risk of birth defects, researchers have found.

Folic acid has been proven to help prevent neural tube defects in unborn babies, including spina bifida.

The Department of Health recommends that women should take folic acid supplements while trying for a baby or pregnant.

Sustained and persistent campaigning is vital

John Grounds, Action Research

However, a Mori survey for the charity Action Research found that one in five women of childbearing age was completely unaware of the potential health benefits of folic acid.

And just 15% of women had taken folic acid supplements while pregnant or trying for a baby.

Neural tube defects affect more than 2,000 babies a year.

Spina bifida alone accounts for around one in 10 of all birth defects.

The poll found that 56% of women aged 15 to 55 in the UK understood that folic acid could help prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects.

Around a fifth of women knew there were some health benefits but did not realise folic acid should be taken before as well as during pregnancy.

More than seven out of 10 women were in favour of proposals to fortify flour with folic acid.

Public consultation

The Department of Health is currently undertaking a public consultation exercise on whether folic acid should be routinely added to flour.

The Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA) issued a report earlier this year which found that fortifying flour with 240mg of folic acid per 100g of food could reduce the risk of neural tube defects by 41%.

The COMA report estimated that of 93 NTD affected births in England and Wales in 1998, 38 could have been prevented with the fortification of flour.

However, a study published last year in The Lancet medical journal by researchers from the Imperial School of Medicine Department of Medical and Community Genetics suggested that women most likely to benefit from taking the pills are not planning their pregnancies.

'Widespread ignorance'

Action Research on Thursday launched an awareness event at the House of Commons to highlight the health benefits of folic acid.

John Grounds, Action Research's director of communications, said: "The Mori poll demonstrates that there is widespread ignorance, with a considerable proportion of women still unclear about the benefits of folic acid, and/or failing to take it appropriately."

"Sustained and persistent campaigning is vital for alerting existing and future generations of mothers about the importance of taking folic acid.

'There will always be a proportion of women who have unexpected pregnancies and therefore do not benefit from folic acid in time.

"However, the possible fortification of flour will give their unborn babies added protection against NTDs.'

MORI interviewed 804 women aged 15-55 in the UK for the survey.

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See also:

25 Jul 00 | Health
Public consulted on folic acid
13 Jan 00 | Health
'Put folic acid in bread'
18 Nov 99 | Health
Benefits of folic acid reinforced
22 Jan 99 | Health
Folic acid does not mean twins
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