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A recently launched SafeFood Campaign has urged women who are sexually active to take folic acid, regardless of whether they are planning a pregnancy or not.
The campaign has been developed to encourage women to take the Vitamin B supplement to help prevent serious birth defects of a baby’s brain and spine, including Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus.
Research conducted by Professor Dornan, the chairman of health and life sciences at Ulster University, has found that Northern Ireland has one of the highest incidences of these conditions, which are known as Neural Tube Defects (NTDs).
He said: “With such a high rate of unplanned pregnancy, it’s important that our folic acid message reaches all women, not just those thinking about having a baby.
“Research shows that less than one in five women in Northern Ireland have taken folic acid before they become pregnant, so the best approach is for all sexually active women to build this into their daily routine.
“The neural tube is important in the healthy formation of a baby’s spine and brain and it is formed in the first few weeks of development, before many women are even aware that they are pregnant.
“In Northern Island statistics suggest that an average of 12 to 18 babies are born with NTDs like Spina Bifida every year. Taking folic acid daily as a supplement could potentially prevent 70 per cent of these conditions – that could be up to 12 fewer babies affected every year.” Further research for the campaign, conducted by SafeFood, found that one in ten adult women mistakenly believe that they can get enough folic acid from their diet.
However, Dr Foley-Nolan, director of human health and nutrition at SafeFood, added: “For a healthy mum and baby, you simply can’t get enough folic acid from our food alone even with fortified foods. Taking a daily folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms is the only way to go. Folic acid is widely available, and doesn’t cost more than a few pence a day.
“Taking folic acid doesn’t mean you are planning a baby but just means when you do have a baby, however far in the future that may be, you are already helping to protect their health.”