Flour in the UK is to be fortified with folic acid in a move to help reduce brain and spine birth defects. Medics have long called for the move, saying that it could reduce the incidence of conditions caused by abnormal development of the neural tube.
All flour is to be fortified with folic acid after ministers swung behind a plan that medical experts say will reduce the number of babies born in the UK with serious birth defects, the Guardian reported.
The policy, which will be introduced within weeks, comes after ministers were convinced by their own advisers that it would reduce the risk of babies developing spina bifida and other conditions that involve severe disability or death.Until now, ministers in successive governments have ignored repeated pleas to embrace mandatory folic fortification.
“Downing Street has approved the switch after a long-running campaign by doctors, scientists and baby health campaigners, well-placed Whitehall sources say. Theresa May, who was opposed, has been persuaded to change her mind”, Guardian reported. Medical groups and health charities welcomed the decision.
Pregnant women, and those trying to conceive, are urged by health officials to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid, at least until the 12th week of pregnancy. But many women do not take the supplements – especially if a pregnancy is unplanned.
“Mandatory fortification will be a game-changer for the UK,” told Kate Steele, the chief executive of the charity Shine, which helps families affected by neural tube (birth) defects. “A government decision to introduce mandatory fortification will mean a major positive impact for the health and wellbeing of babies born in the future. In many cases, it will be the difference between life and death.”
A host of government, NHS and advisory bodies support fortification, which already happens in more than 80 countries, including the US. The move is also backed by medical royal colleges, including those representing professionals involved in babies’ and children’s health – obstetricians and gynaecologists, paediatricians and midwives. In the US there has been an estimated 23% reduction in neural tube defects (NTD) since folic fortification of flour was introduce in 1998.
Taking enough folic acid in pregnancy is estimated to reduce by as much as 70% the risk of a NTD such as anencephaly, a fatal condition in which the foetus develops without a major portion of the brain, skull and scalp and dies in utero or shortly after birth.
Britain is believed to have the highest rate of NTDs in Europe. A major academic study in 2015 estimated that 2,000 fewer babies in Britain would have been born with an NTD between 1998 and 2015 if the government had introduced folic fortification of flour.
Until now women in the UK who are pregnant or are hoping to have a child are advised to take folic acid supplements to increase their intake of folate, an approach the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) says is ineffective.
Official advice is a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid when trying to become pregnant and up until the 12th week of pregancy. But many women, especially those in poorer homes, do not take enough. GUARDIAN