The Centers for Disease Control report that birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States , accounting for 20% of all infant deaths. Almost 8,000 of nearly 120,000 babies born in the U.S. every year die during their first year. Birth defects are the fifth leading cause of years of potential life lost and contribute substantially to childhood illness and long term disability. Birth defects are responsible for 30% of all pediatric hospital admissions and cost Americans over $2 billion each year.
Although only about 30% of birth defects have an identifiable cause, research in recent years has provided information on one very important strategy for preventing a type of birth defect called neural tube defects (NTDs).
Neural Tube Defects
About 2,500 babies are born with NTDs each year. NTDs are congenital malformations of the brain and spinal cord in which the neural tube, the foundation of the central nervous system, fails to close properly in the first 28 days of life. These NTDs result in spina bifida, a physical problem where the baby will never be able to walk, or anencephaly, a problem where the brain and skull will never develop fully and the baby dies.
Up to 70% of these NTDs could be prevented. A baby needs folic acid right after it is conceived, before the mother knows she is pregnant. If a woman has plenty of it in her body before pregnancy, this vitamin can prevent birth defects of the baby's spine or brain. The key is for the mother to make sure her body has a sufficient amount of folic acid before getting pregnant.
Folic acid is a B vitamin found in some enriched foods and vitamin pills. Folic acid helps the baby's brain and spinal cord develop properly. Without enough folic acid, the baby could have neural tube defects.
The U.S. Public Health Service recommends all women of child-bearing age who are capable of becoming pregnant, take 400 milligrams of folic acid every day. Folic acid has been added to breads, pastas, rice, and cereals. Fruits and vegetables can provide some. It is possible to get folic acid through food alone, but it takes careful planning to make sure a woman gets enough every day. The easiest way is by taking a multivitamin containing folic acid daily.
Since the word has been getting out about the importance of folic acid, the number of babies born with NTDs has decreased.