The number of babies with spina bifida or similar abnormalities has declined by over 40 per cent since 1995, Australia's Minister for Health, Bronwyn Pike, said yesterday.
"This represents a decrease from 20 per 10,000 births (129 affected pregnancies) in 1995 to 12 per 10,000 births (74 affected pregnancies) in 2002," Ms Pike said.
The new figures are contained in the report Birth Defects in Victoria, 2001 – 2002.
"Efforts to encourage intending mothers to increase folate supplements has been enormously successful," Ms Pike said.
"These have included folate awareness campaigns to encourage women to use folate tablet supplements before pregnancy and fortification of some foods with folate.
"We know that an appropriate intake of folate pre-conception can reduce the prevalence of neural tube defects even further, so there is still room for improvement with a greater focus on primary prevention."
That is why Food Standards Australia New Zealand is considering a variation to the Food Standards Code, which will require mandatory fortification of food with folate following recent agreement between State and Territory Health Ministers. Before any new standard is adopted public consultation will be sought.
Ms Pike said the register of birth defects was maintained to provide information to health professionals, organisations and people representing groups in the community with particular disabilities and to assist research into a range of disorders.
"This is used to investigate trends in certain birth defects, to evaluate programs and the effectiveness of new technologies such as antenatal screening and ultrasound," she said.
Ms Pike said there has been no increase in the overall number of birth defects for a decade now, but numbers related to some particular birth defects have changed.
"For instance, the overall prevalence of Down syndrome has increased, due to the number of older women becoming pregnant and increased use of early pregnancy screening," she said.
"Women over 40 are at an increased risk of having a child with a birth defect with the prevalence rate of seven per cent, compared with an overall rate of 4 per cent."
Ms Pike said women should be encouraged to think carefully about what age they choose to have children as the incidence of birth defects increases with maternal age.