Before Pregnancy Take Vitamin

Each year an estimated 4,000 American babies are born with neural tube defects, birth defects that can lead to death.

According to The New England Journal of Medicine more than 50 percent of these cases could be avoided by simply taking a vitamin. The Early Show Health Contributor Dr. Bernadine Healy reports.

The medical community has known for years that if women of childbearing age regularly take vitamins containing folic acid, they can prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.

The problem is that it is only effective when taken in the first few weeks of pregnancy, before a woman even knows she's pregnant.

Neural tube defects are birth defects that involve the spinal cord. The two most common are anencephaly and spina bifida.

Anencephaly is a devastating condition where the top of the fetus' spinal cord doesn't close, and the baby is born without a brain. These babies are usually stillborn or die within a day or so.

To learn of two studies that found surgery can reverse some of the severe effects of spina bifida, read Studies: Surgery Allays Defects.
Spina bifida is when the lower part of the spinal cord doesn't close completely. Spina bifida can be mild, in which case the child will have difficulty walking, and it can also be severe, where the child will be mentally retarded.

Prevention: Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied women in China, a part of the world where there is a high incidence of babies with neural tube defects. They found that with women taking 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, there was a reduction in babies with those defects.

Consumption of folic acid: The development and closure of the spinal cord takes place in the first few weeks of pregnancy, before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

More News
This is especially important because about half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. So women who are in their childbearing years should be consuming folic acid regularly and continue to do so through their pregnancy.

Sources of folic acid: Folic acid is naturally found in orange juice, liver, beans and leafy vegetables, such as spinach. The government now mandates that creals and grain products, such as rice and pasta, be fortified with folic acid.

It's difficult for most people, however, to get enough folic acid from their diet alone. So it's suggested that women also take a supplement or a multivitamin that contains 400 micrograms of folic acid.

Taking more than 1,000 micrograms of supplemental folic acid per day may delay the diagnosis of a vitamin B12 deficiency.

Other benefits: Preliminary research suggests folic acid may also prevent cleft palate, congenital heart defects and prematurity.

It was also recently discovered that women who have a gene that prevents them from metabolizing folic acid are more likely to have a child with Down syndrome.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved