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Diet can help prevent birth defects

Fortifying grain foods with folic acid has saved about 1,300 babies every year from being born with serious birth defects of the brain and spine known as neural tube defects, according to new data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The number of babies born in the United States with these conditions has declined by 35 percent since 1998.

About 3,000 pregnancies in the U.S. still are affected by neural tube defects annually. Even with fortified grain products, many women still may not be getting enough folic acid. All women are urged to take vitamins containing folic acid, but only about one-third of women do. Hispanic women continue to be about 20 percent more likely to have a child with a neural tube defect than non-Hispanic white women, according to the new research. One reason may be that wheat flour is fortified with folic acid, but corn masa flour, more popular among Hispanic women, is not.

Folic acid is a B vitamin that can help reduce the risk of birth defects of the spine and brain if taken before or during the first weeks of pregnancy. Good sources of folic acid include: Papaya, orange juice, fortified cereals, breads and pasta, dried beans and lentils, broccoli and spinach Women who have had a previous pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect should talk to their doctor about CDC recommendations to take high-dose folic acid beginning at least four weeks before becoming pregnant and continuing through the first trimester of pregnancy.

Find out how you can help prevent premature birth and birth defects by joining March for Babies at marchforbabies.org.

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Lin Joseph, MPH, is director of program services, March of Dimes Hawaii Chapter.

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