Food For Thought: helping prevent disabilities in babies
26 October 2000
Only about half of British women of childbearing age are aware that folic acid can help prevent spina bifida in unborn babies, according to a new survey.
A MORI poll commissioned by Action Research, a leading UK medical charity, found that only 56% of the respondents (all women aged 15-55) understood the important link.
And in the first published opinion poll on whether to add folic acid to flour, the results indicate that the majority of women would respond positively to such a move.
Thirty years ago Action Research discovered vital clues suggesting that the folic acid vitamin was a key ingredient in helping prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida, which currently accounts for 10% of all birth defects. Although subsequent studies have reiterated this key message, many women fail to take the recommended advice and dosage.
About one in five (17%) of the respondents were completely unaware of the health benefits of folic acid. A third of this group has had a baby and/or were currently pregnant. Additionally, more than one in four (27%) of the overall sample failed to select the categories offered in the poll, suggesting that they may also be unaware of the health benefits.
Only 15% followed the recommended advice by taking the supplement both when trying for a baby and during the pregnancy.
Today (October 26), MPs are supporting the launch of an Action Research awareness event at the House of Commons, where they are being photographed with a purpose-built giant folic acid supplement box.
Action Research’s Director of Communications, John Grounds, says: ‘The MORI poll demonstrates that there is widespread ignorance, with a considerable proportion of women still unclear about the benefits of folic acid, and/or failing to take it appropriately.
‘The results underpin the importance of our campaign today to alert both the public at large and parents-to-be, and help give unborn babies the best start in life.’
The poll found:
*56% were aware of the health benefits of folic acid. (A survey by the Health Education Authority in 1998 found that, when prompted, 75% of women aged 16 to 45 knew that they should increase their intake of folic acid before and during pregnancy).
*Younger women (aged 15-34) were more likely to be aware of the benefits than older women (aged 35-55).
*One in three were aware of the health benefits and have taken folic acid at some time.
*The main reasons for not taking folic acid, despite awareness of its benefits, were not fully understanding them, needing more information, feeling that the claims lacked credibility, or when pregnancies were discovered too late to do so.
*About a fifth were aware of the health benefits but had only taken the supplement when pregnant, not before.
These last results add ammunition to calls for the universal fortification of flour, which will help target unplanned pregnancies, and according to a Government committee report could prevent almost half of neural tube defects .The Department of Health is currently consulting on the conclusions.
The Action Research MORI poll found that 72% were in favour of fortification. Another 15% were against it, and 13% didn’t know.
Pioneering researcher Professor Richard Smithells, whose Action Research funded work contributed to the initial folic acid discovery, wholeheartedly’ supports fortification - a measure which has already been introduced in the US.
The work of Action Research has touched millions of lives across the UK by funding research projects at the cutting edge of medicine, especially for children. This year it launched its Touching Lives campaign in a bid to raise £1.5 million for research.
For press enquires, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email email@example.com
*Spina bifida occurs when the spine does not form properly, leaving a gap or a split. *In severe cases the new-born baby dies. Less severely affected children can be incontinent and paralysed.
*Women hoping to become pregnant should take 400mcg supplement of folic acid every day immediately after stopping contraception and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
*They are also advised to eat a diet rich in foods which naturally contain folic acid such as leafy green vegetables, as well as foods which have been fortified with folic acid such as breads and breakfast cereals.
*COMA (Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy) says universal fortification of flour with folic acid at 240 micrograms per 100g in food products as consumed would reduce the risk of an NTD in unborn babies and children by 41%, without resulting in unacceptably high intakes in any group of the population.
*In America, compulsory fortification of flour was introduced in 1998.
MORI interviewed a representative quota sample of 804 women aged 15-55. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in homes across Great Britain. Interviews were carried out between October 5-9 2000. Data have been weighted to the known profile of the British population. For further information please contact Michele Corrado or Anna Carluccio at MORI on 0207 928 5955.
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