updated 5/6/2004 2:54:56 PM ET 2004-05-06T18:54:56

Severe brain and spinal birth defects have dropped 27 percent in the United States since the government in 1998 began requiring makers of cereal, pasta, bread and flour to fortify their foods with folic acid, health authorities reported Thursday.

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Folic acid is known to reduce the risk of spina bifida and anencephaly, which are also called neural tube defects.

Before fortification, about 4,130 babies had such neural tube defects each year in the United States, and nearly 1,200 died. After fortification, the yearly average dropped to about 3,000, with 840 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Spina bifida cases dropped 31 percent, and anencephaly cases fell 16 percent, the CDC said.

The first nine monthsEarly in pregnancy, the neural tube creates the brain, skull and spine. In spina bifida, the neural tube fails to close properly at the lower end. It can cause paralysis of the legs or result in the loss of bowel or bladder control.

Anencephaly is a fatal condition in which the brain never completely develops or is absent. It is caused by the failure of the neural tube to close at the upper end.

Since 1992, the U.S. Public Health Service has recommended that women of childbearing age get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, whether through enriched foods or supplements or both.

Yet only 30 percent to 35 percent of women in this age group take folic acid supplements, said Jenny Williams, a CDC researcher. And only 37 percent of doctors tell women to do so, she added.

“We know that we could avert another 1,000 neural tube defects if all women of childbearing age consumed 400 micrograms of folic acid daily,” Williams said.

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