January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month and for us at the Spina Bifida Association (SBA), it is a pretty busy time. Our mission is to promote the prevention of Spina Bifida and improve the quality of life for those living with it. While we spend our entire year working with individuals and families managing Spina Bifida to ensure they are living as happy and as healthy as possible, in January we turn a special focus to our prevention messages.
Spina Bifida is the most commonly occurring, permanently disabling birth defect in the United States. It is a neural tube defect (NTD) meaning it involves the brain and spinal column. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about 1,500 babies are born with Spina Bifida in the United States. Birth defects affect approximately one in 33 newborns in the United States and are a leading cause of infant mortality.
The thing about Spina Bifida is a lot of it is still a mystery. While researchers believe that it is caused by both genetic and environmental factors, they cannot tell us exactly what those factors are. And to further complicate it, Spina Bifida is what we call a snowflake condition meaning that no two cases are exactly alike. So while doctors can often diagnose cases of Spina Bifida during pregnancy, they cannot tell a family exactly what challenges their child may face from it.
One thing that scientists can tell us though is that 400 micrograms of folic acid daily can prevent up to 70% of cases of NTDs like Spina Bifida. While folic acid isn’t a foolproof way to prevent NTDs, it has been shown to be our most effective risk reducer. So what can you do?
- Eat foods high in folic acid like enriched grain products. Since 1998, the Food and Drug Administration has mandated the addition of folic acid to grain products like white bread and cereals with a goal to increase Americans’ daily intake and reduce birth defects. Research over the last fifteen years, has indicated that the occurrence of NTDs is lower than pre-fortification levels. Additionally, foods like leafy vegetables and legumes are high in folate, the naturally occurring form of folic acid.
- Take a daily multi-vitamin. Multi-vitamins almost uniformly contain daily doses of folic acid in them. Plus they contain lots of other vitamins and minerals your body needs to stay healthy.
- Talk with your OB/GYN about your risk at your annual appointment. Oftentimes, doctors will recommend a higher dose of daily folic acid for women with a history of NTDs in their family. And, even if you aren’t ready to start a family, the time to take folic acid is now. Many pregnancies are unplanned and folic acid is only effective in preventing NTDs if it is taken in the first 28 days of pregnancy – often before a woman would even know she was expecting.
- Tell a friend. There are over 65 million women of childbearing age in the U.S. and each of them is at risk for a pregnancy affected by Spina Bifida. Be sure you tell your friends and family about the important role folic acid can play in a healthy pregnancy.
ABOUT THE BLOGGER: The mission of the Spina Bifida Association ® (SBA) is to promote the prevention of Spina Bifida and to enhance the lives of all affected. The Association was formed in 1973 and has a presence in more than 125 communities. SBA has acted as the nation’s sole voluntary health agency working to improve the lives of those with Spina Bifida. Its tools are education, advocacy, research, and service.