Monday, January 24, 2005

National Folic Acid Awareness Week — the nation’s first — began yesterday and will continue through Sunday as a way to reach consumers, health care providers and policy-makers about the importance of the vitamin.

The National Council on Folic Acid — a partnership of more than 80 national organizations, state folic acid councils and government agencies aiming at promoting the consumption of folic acid — is sponsoring the week, which is expected to become an annual event.

Folic acid is a B-vitamin necessary for proper cell growth, and it particularly helps an unborn child’s neutral tube — the part that becomes the brain and spinal cord — develop properly.

Through consumption of folic acid, researchers say women can reduce significantly their risk of having a pregnancy affected by serious birth defects of the brain and spine.

“The research is complete and of the best kind,” said Jose Cordero, director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

“Folic acid: You don’t know what you’re missing” is the slogan of the campaign focusing on nutrition and overall health to make people, especially women of childbearing years, aware of the importance of folic acid in their diet.

The U.S. Public Health Service recommended in September 1992 that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to prevent neural-tube defect-affected pregnancies.

These birth defects happen in the earliest days of pregnancy — around day 11 — long before a woman finds out that she is expecting.

“That is why we recommend that all women of childbearing years take folic acid daily, whether they intend to become pregnant or not,” Mr. Cordero said.

Research has shown that if taken before and during early pregnancy, folic acid can prevent as many as 70 percent of these birth defects.

An estimated 3,000 pregnancies are affected with neural-tube defects annually, and estimated medical care and surgical costs for people with spina bifida in the United States exceed $200 million.

The week is especially important owing to the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets, said Anita Boles, executive director for National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies. Women may miss out on important vitamins.

Though folic acid can be found in fortified breakfast cereals, beans, leafy green vegetables, enriched bread and pasta, and orange juice, it might be hard to get enough every day through food alone. The best way to get enough folic acid is to take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid in it, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Washington advises.

Some studies suggest that folic acid may also help protect women and men from heart disease, cervical and colon cancer, and possibly breast cancer.

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