The importance of folic acid supplementation in preventing the rate of birth defects has once again been emphasised by experts, who say all women of childbearing age should take the mineral supplement daily.
The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently updated its 2009 recommendation on folic acid supplementation in women of childbearing age.
According to the task force, neural tube defects are among the most common major congenital anomalies in the United States and may lead to a range of disabilities or death. Women who have a personal or family history of a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect are at increased risk of having an affected pregnancy, note the authors. “However, most cases occur in the absence of any personal or family history.”
Daily folic acid supplementation in the periconceptional period can prevent neural tube defects, as the majority of women do not receive the recommended daily intake of folate from diet alone. The task force notes that a significant percentage of pregnancies are unplanned.
The current review assessed new evidence on the benefits and harms of folic acid supplementation, with the task force assessing the balance of the benefits and harms in women of childbearing age; they determined that the net benefit is substantial.
“Evidence is adequate that the harms to the mother or infant from folic acid supplementation taken at the usual doses are no greater than small. Therefore, the USPSTF reaffirms its 2009 recommendation,” they concluded.
The recommendation is that all women who are planning or capable of pregnancy take a daily supplement containing 0.4 to 0.8 mg (400-800 µg) of folic acid.
Recommendations vary from country to country, but a 2015 study published in the British Medical Journal stated that Europe has failed to implement an effective policy for prevention of neural tube defects by folic acid.
Each year, around 5,000 pregnancies in Europe are affected by neural tube defects like spina bifida and anencephaly (problems with brain and skull formation), with serious consequences for newborns and their families.