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March 2007 Issue
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Unborn babies at risk from lack of folic acid

 Obstetrics & Gynaecology

A University of Adelaide study has found that most pregnant women are failing to take adequate folic acid supplements, leaving their unborn child at risk of brain abnormalities and spinal cord defects such as spina bifida.

Researchers from the University's Discipline of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at the Women's and Children's Hospital say folic acid is a key factor in reducing the incidence of defects, which affect around 1-2 pregnancies per 1000.

The study, published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, shows that only 30% of pregnant women adequately supplement their diet with folic acid. Also, most do not know the recommended correct daily dose - 400 micrograms from one month before conception and the first three months of early pregnancy.

Professor Alastair MacLennan, Head of the Discipline of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, said some supplement brands do not contain the recommended dose in one tablet.

"Women need to be aware that they may not be adequately protecting their baby from the risk of neural tube defects," Professor MacLennan said.

The neural tube is the embryonic structure that develops into the brain and spinal cord. Very early in a baby's development, a layer of cells folds over and "zips up" to form the neural tube. If the cells fail to form a tube at some point, the baby will be affected with brain and/or spinal abnormalities called a neural tube defect.

Co-researcher Melissa Conlin, a Faculty of Science Honours student, said Australia needs to follow the lead of other countries that have mandatory folic acid additives in certain foods such as flour.

"There is considerable room for improvement in the current policy of supplementation in Australia, with variable trends across the States in the rate of neural tube defects," she said. "Since pregnancies are often unplanned, to rely solely on supplementation is an ineffective health policy.

"To achieve the best outcome, this study recommends both policies are adopted - folic acid additions in foods such as bread, along with a daily capsule or tablet supplement for women who could become pregnant."

Professor MacLennan said both health policies were required to minimise the chances of major birth defects.

Ms Jessica Broadbent from Obstetrics & Gynaecology was also involved in the study.

Story by Candy Gibson

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