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Health & Pregnancy

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Women Need a Folic Acid Fix

WebMD Health News

Oct. 3, 2000 -- Researchers in South Carolina have shown that encouraging women to take folic acid before and during pregnancy reduces their risk of having a baby with birth defects called neural tube defects. Experts recommend that all women of child-bearing age get enough folic acid and that women who want to become pregnant have their folic acid levels tested by a physician.

Neural tube defects occur when part of the maturing nervous system of the developing child, from which both the brain and spinal cord develop, fails to close completely during the first month of pregnancy. Muscle and bone cannot grow across such a gap, causing some of the most serious birth defects, including conditions known as spina bifida, anencephaly, and encephalocele.

In the U.S., about 2,500 babies are born each year with neural tube defects, which is about six in every 10,000 live births. Most often, unborn children affected by neural tube defects do not even survive to birth, and those who do are usually extremely disabled. Although neural tube defects can have a genetic cause, it is known that women who take enough folic acid, or vitamin B-12, especially before pregnancy and during the first month of pregnancy, are far less likely to have a child affected by one of these devastating conditions.

Lead author of the study, Roger E. Stevenson, MD, tells WebMD that his is the first U.S. study of its size to show that if women take folic acid, they are less likely to have children who are affected by neural tube defects. It confirms the role of folic acid in healthy pregnancies that has been demonstrated in studies in other countries. Stevenson is director of the Greenwood Genetic Center in Greenwood, S.C. The study appears in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Stevenson and his team monitored the number of pregnancies that occurred in South Carolina from 1992 to 1998 and identified those affected by a neural tube defect. During this same time, public awareness campaigns were used to inform women of reproductive age about the importance of folic acid, and women who had had children affected by a neural tube defect in the past were advised to take folic acid during any following pregnancy.

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