Scientists urged women trying to conceive to take folic acid supplements after finding that half of the population has an increased risk of having a child with a serious birth defect.
Dr Peadar Kirke, a public health expert at the Health Research Board in Dublin, and colleagues in Ireland and the United States identified an altered gene that raises the odds of neural tube defects such as spina bifida after studying nearly 400 people born with a defect and more than 800 healthy volunteers.
The genetic variation puts half the population at an increased risk of neural tube defects, according to the researchers.
“Our study provides new data underscoring the importance of public health ... programs of folic acid supplementation and food fortification targeted at all women of childbearing age to prevent neural tube defects,” Kirke said in a report published online by the British Medical Journal on Friday.
About 40 percent of the population have one copy of the altered gene and 10 percent have two copies.
“The genetic variant is very common,” Kirke said in an interview.
Fortified foods reduced birth defects
He advised women to take supplements of folic acid before getting pregnant and afterwards to prevent neural tube defects.
Folic acid is a synthetic compound of folate, a B vitamin found in green leafy vegetables and liver. Women are advised to take supplements before conceiving and during the early months of pregnancy.
Neural tube disorders occur during the early development of the fetus when the spine does not close properly. Spina bifida, a defect of the spinal column, is the most common of them.
The United States started fortifying flour with folic acid several years ago after its role was established in reducing birth defects. Since then the number of babies in the United States born with spina bifida or another serious defect called anencephaly has fallen by about 26 percent.
Kirke said his findings provide further evidence for food fortification with folic acid.
Scientists have also found that daily supplements of folic acid or food fortified with it can help to prevent heart disease, stroke and blood clots.
Folic acid breaks down a substance in blood called homocysteine which is a cause of heart attack and stroke.