Take folic acid, pregnant women urged

12 January 2016

Pregnancy and folic acid

Many couples start the New Year with a resolution to start trying for a baby.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) is urging women currently trying to conceive or planning pregnancy in the next few months to start taking folic acid supplements now because they are proven to reduce the risk of the foetus developing serious abnormalities.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid, or folate, is a form of a water-soluble B vitamin. Folate occurs naturally in food but a synthetic version of the vitamin has been added to a number of foods, such as cereals, breads and pasta, since 1998. Natural sources of folate include; leafy vegetables, okra, asparagus, fruits, beans, yeast, meat, orange juice and tomato juice.

Why should pregnant women take it?

Women who are pregnant or are trying for a baby should take folic acid to prevent miscarriage and neural tube defects (NTDs) like spina bifada and anencephaly. Spina bifida causes lifelong disability, while anencephaly is condition in which the baby’s skull and brain do not form properly.

Unfortunately, rates of these conditions in the UK remain high, with around 1,000 pregnancies estimated to be affected every year, and the majority of cases (80 per cent) end in the painful decision to terminate what is often a much wanted pregnancy.

Flour fortification

bpas hopes UK health ministers will approve the fortification of flour with folic acid in this year. Adding folic acid to everyday food would be of particular benefit to women with unplanned pregnancies who, as a result, would have higher levels of the vitamin when they conceived. The US and Canada, amongst others, have already introduced mandatory fortification and have seen a marked reduction in neural tube defects, with no evidence of adverse effects on the rest of the population.

Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs at bpas, said, “We know there are many reasons why women don’t take folic acid before they conceive – not least because many pregnancies are not planned. Contraception fails, and sometimes we fail to use it properly, and it is simply unrealistic to expect all women of reproductive age to be taking folic acid on the basis that they might get pregnant. We hope in 2016 ministers approve the fortification of flour with folic acid, as was first recommended a decade ago. It’s a straightforward public health intervention which could spare hundreds of women every year from the painful decision to end a much wanted pregnancy.”

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