BBC – A campaign to encourage all sexually active women in Northern Ireland to take folic acid has been launched.
Fewer than one in five women have taken folic acid before becoming pregnant, research by Safefood – the food safety promotion board – suggests.
Taking the supplement should help prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spine including spinal bifida and hydrocephalus.
Northern Ireland has one of the highest incidences of these conditions.
This campaign is targeted at all sexually active women who could become pregnant, as research has revealed that about half of pregnancies in Northern Ireland are unplanned.
Prof Jim Dornan, chair of health and life sciences at Ulster University, said: “With such a high rate of unplanned pregnancy, it’s important that our folic acid message reaches all women, not just those thinking about having a baby.
“Research shows that less than one in five women in Northern Ireland have taken folic acid before they become pregnant so the best approach is for all sexually active women to build this into their daily routine.
“The neural tube is important in the healthy formation of a baby’s spine and brain and it is formed in the first few weeks of development, before many women are even aware that they are pregnant.
“Currently in Northern Ireland on average between 12 and 18 babies are born with neural tube defects like Spina Bifida every year.
“Taking folic acid daily as a supplement could potentially prevent 70% of these conditions – that could be up to 12 fewer babies affected every year.”
Cathy McKillop, director of Shine, a support group for families living with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, said: “Our message is very simple. We know that many of these cases are avoidable by taking one daily supplement.
“Whether you’re thinking about having a baby or not, we wholeheartedly encourage women to start taking folic acid every day. It’s such a small thing which can make such a big, life-long difference.”
Consumer research conducted by safefood also found that one in 10 young adult women mistakenly believe that they can get enough folic acid from their diet.
A new research project across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, funded by safefood, will analyse folic acid levels in women during the first trimester of pregnancy and will help inform future policy and practice.