All women who are sexually active need to take folic acid daily, whether or not they are planning a pregnancy, according to a Safefood campaign launched on Monday.
“Women who are sexually active should start taking the vitamin daily even if a baby is the last thing on their mind,” said Rhona Mahony, master of the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street.
Previously, women were advised to take folic acid when they were planning to become pregnant.
“Up to 50 per cent of all pregnancies are unplanned, but a baby’s crucial neural tube develops in the first few weeks of pregnancy when many women may be unaware they are pregnant,” Dr Mahony said.
The recommendation is based on Irish research at the UCD Centre for Human Reproduction, which showed a reduction in the numbers taking folic acid. Three out of four pregnant women do not have sufficient amounts of the vitamin before the developing spinal cord has closed.
This can result in a neural tube defect (NTD), said Michael Turner, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital.
Increase in NTDs
“Sadly, there has been a recent increase in the number of babies born with NTDs in Ireland,” said Prof Turner.
“On average, around 80 babies are born every year in Ireland with NTDs. One in three cases of NTD is genetic, so could not be prevented by taking the vitamin, but taking over-the-counter folic acid at a cost of a few cent a day could potentially prevent 70 per cent of cases.
“NTDs result in a wide spectrum of disability with possible profound lifelong consequences for babies.”
Ten per cent of women wrongly believe they get enough folic acid from food, Prof Turner added. All women who are sexually active should take folic acid, but some require higher doses to protect against NTDs.
Women who are diabetic, obese or on medication for epilepsy should get a GP’s advice several months before planning to become pregnant, he said.