Despite expert advice many women are failing to take folic acid supplements before pregnancy, a study has shown.
Taking folic acid supplements is believed to protect unborn children. Evidence shows that boosting levels of folate –vitamin B6 – before pregnancy can prevent many cases of spina bifida and other birth defects affecting the brain, spine or spinal cord.
Researchers questioned nearly 500,000 women attending antenatal clinics in England and the Isle of Man, and found that fewer than one in three took folic acid before becoming pregnant.
The study showed that the number of women following the guidelines has fallen from 35% in 1999/2001 to 31% in 2011/12.
Sir Nicholas Wald, one of the study authors, who originally uncovered the protective effect of folic acid called it a “public health tragedy”.
He said: “In spite of the folic acid fortification initiative in many countries, the UK has not introduced a mandatory folic acid fortification. The failure to fortify flour with folic acid is like having a polio vaccine and not using it.”
Afro-Caribbean women (17%) and south Asian women (20%) were least likely to take folic acid before becoming pregnant compared to 25% of east Asian women and 35% of white Caucasian women.
Only 6% of teenagers under 30 had taken the supplements, compared to 40% of women aged 35-39.
Jonathan Bestwick, co-author of the study, who is a lecturer in medical statistics at Queen Mary, told the Guardian: "The current UK policy of recommending women take folic acid supplements has failed and has also led to health inequalities among ethnic minorities and younger women. The government should introduce mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid without delay."