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PA Health Department Reminds Women That Folic Acid Prevents Birth Defects
Harrisburg PA, 14 January 2003

In observance of National Birth Defects Prevention Month, Physician General Dr. Rob Muscalus today reminded all women of child-bearing age of the importance of folic acid and its role in preventing neural tube birth defects (NTDs), which are defects of the brain and spinal cord.

"Taking 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day before becoming pregnant and in the early weeks of pregnancy can reduce a woman's risk of having a pregnancy affected by neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida, the leading cause of childhood paralysis, by as much as 70 percent," Dr. Muscalus said.

Folic acid is a B vitamin that is necessary for proper cell growth and development of the embryo. Although it is not exactly known how folic acid works to prevent NTDs, its role in tissue formation is essential. Folic acid is required for the production of DNA, which is necessary for the rapid cell growth needed to make fetal tissues and organs early in pregnancy.

The most common type of NTDs are:

  • Anencephaly—The skull and brain do not form properly. Infants cannot survive with this birth defect.

  • Spina Bifida—The spinal cord, bony spiny column and soft tissue layer over the spine do not form properly.

  • EncephaloceleThe skull does not form properly, allowing part of the brain to be contained within a sac outside the skull.

NTDs occur approximately three to four weeks after conception, before most women even realize that they are pregnant. Regardless of pregnancy intention, about half of pregnancies are unplanned, which is why it is important for a woman to have enough folic acid in her body both before and during pregnancy.

It can be difficult to consume enough folic acid from food sources alone. Taking folic acid pills or multivitamins and eating foods rich in folic acid will ensure women receive the proper recommendation.

All women who are capable of becoming pregnant should take 400 mcg of folic acid every day, as well as consume foods rich in folic acid, such as green, leafy vegetables, pasta, bread, orange juice and fortified breakfast cereals.

Ninety-five percent of NTDs occur in women with no personal or family history of NTDs. As a result, it is extremely difficult to predict which women will have a pregnancy affected by NTDs. Known risk factors include having a previous NTD-affected pregnancy, a diagnosis of maternal insulin-dependent diabetes, use of some seizure medications, medically diagnosed obesity and high temperatures in early pregnancy.

Each year, approximately 150,000 infants nationwide are born with a birth defect. Birth defects are also the leading cause of infant mortality in the US.


Pennsylvania Department of Health.end-of-story


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