Virginia Health urges women of childbearing age to take folic acid

According to data from a report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2004, only 35 percent of Virginia women of childbearing age take a vitamin pill that contains folic acid. Folic acid can help reduce the risk for spina bifida and anencephaly, the two most common neural tube birth defects, by as much as 70 percent.

The effectiveness of folic acid in reducing these birth defects was proven in another CDC report, which showed that spina bifida and anencephaly have declined in the United States since cereal manufactures began in January 1998 to fortify breakfast cereals with folic acid. The report, published in May 2004, used data from October 1998-December 1999 that showed a decline in spina bifida cases of 31 percent and a decline in anencephaly of 16 percent during that period.

“The Virginia Department of Health has worked with the March of Dimes since 1999 to promote the consumption of folic acid,” said State Health Commissioner Robert B. Stroube, M.D., M.P.H. “To help prevent a spine and brain neural tube defect, a woman of childbearing age should take 400 micrograms of the B vitamin folic acid everyday.”

The Virginia Department of Health has launched a campaign urging women age 18-44 to take 400 micrograms of the B vitamin folic acid every day to help prevent certain birth defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, a major brain defect.

In June, television stations in Bristol, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, and Richmond will broadcast a public service announcement featuring Virginia first lady Lisa Collis urging women to take folic acid to prevent birth defects.

“According to the CDC, there are three ways women can get enough folic acid to prevent spina bifida and anencephaly,” said Donna T. Seward, C.H.E., director of Virginia Department of Health’s Division of WIC and Community Nutrition Services. “Women can take a multivitamin or folic acid supplement containing 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, eat a fortified breakfast cereal daily that contains 100 percent of the daily value of folic acid, and increase consumption of foods fortified with folic acid. These include enriched cereal, bread, rice, pasta, and other grain products. They also can eat a varied diet including foods that contain folate, such as 100 percent orange juice, dried beans, lentils, spinach, asparagus and leafy green vegetables.”

“A three month supply of a 400-microgram folic acid supplement averages about $2.49. The average lifetime cost for infants born with severe spina bifida can exceed $1 million according to the CDC,” Mrs. Seward states. “The use of a supplement and eating a healthy diet with foods high in folate has shown to be a simple and inexpensive way to reduce the neural tube birth defects anencephaly and spina bifida.”

“Anencephaly is one of a group of birth defects known as the neural tube defects,” said Nancy Ford, R.N., M.P.H., director of Pediatric Screening and Genetic Services at the Virginia Department of Health. “The neural tube is the structure in a growing baby that closes to form the spinal cord and brain. This tube normally closes around day 28 of growth. Most women would not even know they were pregnant when this happens, so that is why folic acid should be taken everyday. Anencephaly occurs when the neural tube does not close properly and the baby’s brain and skull fail to form completely. The baby is born without the front of the brain and the area of the brain where thinking and coordination occur. Without a complete brain a baby’s body cannot grow and function. Most babies with anencephaly die within a few days of birth.” Approximately 10 children are born in Virginia each year with anencephaly, according to the health department’s Birth Defect Surveillance Data report for 1989-1998.

“Spina bifida is a neural tube defect caused by the failure of the fetus's spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy,” Ms. Ford explains. “The location and the size of the opening in the neural tube can affect how serious the problems are for the child. Common problems, despite surgery, include some degree of paralysis or muscle weakness below the area of the opening, and bladder and bowel control issues. In addition to physical and mobility difficulties, most children with spina bifida have learning problems. Spina bifida is one of the most common birth defects.” Approximately 40 children are born in Virginia each year with spina bifida, according VDH’s birth defects report.

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