This Vitamin May Prevent Birth Defects

Neural tube defects like spina bifida down after folic acid fortification mandated in US

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) An ingredient in your breakfast cereal may be preventing birth defects all across the US.

A new study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers found that, since fortifying products with folic acid became a national public health policy, rates of certain serious birth defects have dropped.

"The initial decline in NTD prevalence reported immediately after mandatory folic acid fortification has been maintained after more than a decade since implementation," these researchers wrote. "Mandatory folic acid fortification remains an effective public health policy intervention."

Neural tube defects (NTDs) are birth defect occuring in the spine, spinal cord or brain of an unborn child. One common NTD is spina bifida, in which the spinal column doesn't completely close. This can cause disability.

However, the B vitamin folic acid may help prevent these conditions. And, according to the authors of this new study, led by Jennifer Williams, MSN, of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, steps have been taken in the US to help ensure pregnant women get enough folic acid.

These steps include a 1992 national recommendation that pregnant women get 400 micrograms of the vitamin a day. Then, in 1998, enriched cereal grain products in the US started requiring fortification with folic acid.  Folic Acid is readily available over the counter and the recommended dosage costs on the average 0.03 cents per day.

Wilson and team wanted to explore how rates of NTDs have changed since folic acid fortification became a requirement.

To do so, these researchers looked at birth defect surveillance programs in 19 US states. These included data from the years 1995 to 2011. They found that, after mandatory folic acid fortification, there was an initial drop in rates of NTDs.

During 1995 to 1996, the average yearly rate of NTDs was estimated to be between 2,599 and 4,177 cases. By 1999 to 2000, that figure had dropped to between 2,329 and 2,922 cases.

This rate of NTDs has remained fairly stable in the years since. During the most recent years available, 2009 to 2011, the average rate of NTDs was estimated to be between 2,203 and 2,604 cases a year.

There was a 28 percent drop in NTD cases overall during the years studied.

Based on their findings, Wilson and team estimated that folic acid fortification helped avert 1,326 NTD cases a year.

Wilson and team noted that the data in this study only came from 19 US states and territories.

This study was published Jan. 16 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The authors disclosed no funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
January 17, 2015
Last Updated:
January 20, 2015