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Pregnancy experts have renewed calls to introduce folic acid into flour so women can introduce it into their diet before conception.
Clare Murphy, from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said:
As little as 6% of expectant mothers in their teenage years were taking folic acid supplements to protect their unborn child from developing birth defects, experts have found.
Researchers from Queen Mary University spoke to thousands of pregnant women at ante-natal clinics for a 13 year period from 1999 to 2012 and found:
- Some 40% of older women aged 35 to 39 followed guidelines on folic acid.
- There were strong ethnic variations in women who took folic acid; only 17% of Afro-Caribbean women, 20% of South Asian women and 25% of East Asian women taking folic acid, compared with 35% of white Caucasian women.
- More women took folic acid once they discovered they were pregnant, the proportion rising from 45% to 62% between the periods looked at in the study.
Not enough women are taking folic acid in the run-up to getting pregnant, despite strong evidence it protects their unborn child from birth defects, experts have found.
Fewer than one in three of the 500,000 pregnant women quizzed by researchers from Queen Mary University admitted to taking folic acid prior to conception.
The water soluble B-vitamin protects most unborn children from developing spina bifida and other birth defects affecting the brain, spine or spinal cord.
The findings prompted calls for the introduction of mandatory folic acid fortification of flour in the UK - a policy already adopted in more than 70 countries including the US and Australia.
Professor Sir Nicholas Wald, from London's Queen Mary University explained: "It's a public health tragedy that in spite of the folic acid fortification initiative in many countries, the UK has not introduced mandatory folic acid fortification.
"The failure to fortify flour with folic acid is like having a polio vaccine and not using it."