Research reveals two-thirds of NI women aren’t getting enough folic acid in early pregnancy

  • NI women not getting recommended minimum folic acid levels for the prevention of neural tube defects in early pregnancy

Monday 04 December, 2017. Almost two-thirds (62.1%) of Northern Ireland women aren’t getting the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum levels of folic acid which are essential for the prevention of neural tube defects (NTDs) in early pregnancy.

This was the key finding of a new report by safefood entitled "The folate status of pregnant women in Northern Ireland; the current position".

The research also reveals that less than one-third (31%) of women had started taking folic acid daily 12 weeks prior to pregnancy, with almost half saying they had not taken folic acid before becoming pregnant. Almost all (98%) of women said that they started taking folic acid at the time of their first antenatal appointment. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that all women who may become pregnant take a daily folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms for a minimum of 12 weeks prior to conception.

A daily 400mg folic acid supplementation 12 weeks before and during the early stages of pregnancy can reduce the risk of the foetus developing Neural Tube Defects by 70%.

The UK and Ireland have a higher rate of Neural Tube Defects, which include conditions such as spina bifida, hydrocephalus and anencephaly, than other European countries.

Folic Acid helps support the effective closure of the neural tube of the spine and brain, which happens very early in pregnancy (at approximately 21 – 28 days after conception).

Commenting on the report, Dr Cliodhna Foley Nolan, Director of Human Health and Nutrition, safefood said,

This report highlights that two thirds of women in Northern Ireland aren’t being adequately protected against the risk of Neural Tube Defects in early pregnancy. It is concerning that the number of babies developing Neural Tube Defects has increased in recent years and along with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland we have a higher rate of Neural Tube Defects than other European countries due to our genetic disposition. 

“With 50% of all pregnancies in Northern Ireland unplanned, this research underlines the critical importance of taking daily supplementation of folic acid for all women who could become pregnant. A daily supplement is the way to go as a healthy diet alone won’t help women achieve the required levels set out by the World Health Organisation.”

Jayne Woodside, Professor of Human Nutrition, Queen's University Belfast, said: “This research proves that the low levels of folic acid supplementation in Northern Ireland has led to two-thirds of women not reaching the WHO recommended folate levels, sufficient for reducing the risk of the unborn child developing a serious health condition such as spina bifida. 

“The research also revealed that even though 98% of women took folic acid after they found out they were pregnant, only one-third of the women who took folic acid took it for more than 12 weeks before conception as recommended.”

Cathy McKillop, Northern Ireland Director of SHINE, said: “The children we work with, and their families and carers, encounter many challenges in their daily lives dealing with the serious life-long impact conditions such as spina bifida have.

“We would encourage all women who could become pregnant, regardless of whether you plan on having a baby, to take folic acid supplements as part of their daily routine. It’s such a small thing which can make such a big, life-long difference.

“The research findings also support again our call for the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid.  Far too few women are getting the necessary levels of folic acid prior to pregnancy and the fortification issue needs to be tackled. However, women will still continue to take pre- pregnancy supplements to get enough folic acid to achieve best protection.”

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