The plight of neural tube defects (NTD) in the early stages of pregnancy and related complications can be reduced if proper care is taken, and more women are made aware of the options available to them to combat this debilitating condition suffered by some newborn babies. Taking folate at the right time cannot be emphasised enough as a primary intervention mechanism to mitigate NTD prevalence, particularly amongst women in their reproductive age. Folate has a well-established protective role against both first occurrence and the recurrence of NTDs.
NTDs are major malformations resulting from the failure of the neural tube to close properly and can have serious consequences for a child’s quality of life. Normally, the neural tube closes in the first few weeks of pregnancy often before a woman even knows that she is pregnant.
In fact, about 300 000 babies worldwide are born with NTDs annually. Infants with spina bifida – when the bones of the spine (vertebrae) don’t form properly around part of the baby’s spinal cord – have life-long disabilities with varying degrees of paralysis. For example it can cause paralysis of the legs or loss of bowel or bladder control. Sadly, babies with anencephaly – the absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp that occurs during embryonic development – usually die within a few days of birth.
The devastating effects of NTD necessitates an early preventative measure to build-up the necessary level of folate amongst child-bearing women. Since folates belong to the group of B vitamins and cannot be produced by the body women should talk to their doctors about the available options of supplementing folate prior to contemplating even getting pregnant. Folate is able to facilitate a number of essential functions within the body, including enabling the healthy development and growth of the foetus in the womb.
Women are at a distinct advantage if they have elevated folate levels by the time they conceive. A large body of evidence suggests that the risk of NTDs can be substantially reduced if women who are planning a pregnancy supplement their diet with a daily intake of folic acid at least a month before and during the early weeks of pregnancy.
Because there are limitations on how much folate one can derive from ordinary food – where one would have had to consume large amounts like 500g of raw spinach, 900g boiled spinach or 900g raw broccoli (about 12 cups) to achieve the required folate content from foods – a supplementary intake of folate is recommended as a viable option available to intervene against NTDs. A diet rich in folate foods is important, but alone is insufficient.
If you are a woman of child-bearing age, taking a contraceptive for the purpose of spacing your children, please talk to your Doctor about the newer options of folate supplementation.