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Europe calls for folic acid enrichment in food to keep away neural tube defects

Posted:  Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Neural tube defects such as spina bifida are conditions that develop during the first four weeks of pregnancy. Among its various causes, insufficient folate intake is one of the most common nutritional causes. A new study has now found that 5,000 foetuses in Europe are affected by spina bifida yearly. Folic acid enrichment, if practised, could prevent nearly half of these cases believe the researchers.

These staggering numbers were derived by evaluating 9 million registered births in Europe over a period of 11 years. It was found that on an average, 9.17 cases of abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord are recorded per 10,000 births. The Northern European countries of Scandinavia, Germany and Netherlands reported higher figures. These results were published in the journal Birth Defects Research.

Previous research has shown that European women have a blood folate level that is around half the recently recommended WHO level for the prevention of birth defects, indicating the need for enrichment. Folic acid enrichment is not a new concept with 70 non-European countries already practising it, some for many years now. European policy makers have been hesitant to introduce fortification fearing side effects. However, a look at the non-European countries revealed no side effects of folic acid enrichment.

"Food enrichment with a minor amount of folic acid has been shown to be safe for the population -- also without side effects for other age groups and men -- and an effective way of lowering the level of birth defects. It is the most cost-effective way to reach every woman before pregnancy and to reduce child mortality and the risk of disease. But introducing such a measure would require collaboration between policy makers, stakeholders, researchers and healthcare professionals and a country-specific preparation and monitoring processes," explains the lead researcher.

The study also explored the economical implications of brain and spinal cord defects. Of the European nations, Germany has the highest number of births per year. Folic acid enrichment in this country alone could annually prevent 441 cases of these birth defects resulting in an estimated savings of EUR 33 million in medical life cycle costs based on a single year.

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