World Birth Defects Day (WBDD) is a day observed on 3 March. Besides the very important aim of improving the health and quality of life of those affected by congenital conditions, one of the main goals of this annual awareness day is to share what is already known about preventing birth defects1.

There are many types of birth defects, which are also known as congenital anomalies, congenital disorders or congenital conditions1. The most common of these severe defects are heart defects, neural tube defects and Down syndrome2. Every year an estimated 7.9 million children, 6% of total births worldwide, are born with a serious birth defect3.

Neural tube defects (NTDs) occur when the spinal cord fails to close properly4. The most common neural tube defect is spina bifida, which can occur anywhere along the spine if the neural tube does not close all the way. This can result in the backbone (which protects the spinal cord) not forming and closing as it should. This often causes damage to the spinal cord and nerves5.

The most serious neural tube defect is anencephaly, which is when a baby is born without a part of its skull and brain. Babies born with anencephaly will eventually die4. Fortunately, some congenital disorders can be prevented2, particularly neural tube defects3.

Folate (vitamin B9) is important for red blood cell formation, growth and function6. This nutrient is crucial during early pregnancy to reduce the risk of these birth defects of the brain and spine. The synthetic form of folate is folic acid6. There is overwhelming scientific evidence linking an increased intake of synthetic folic acid to a reduced risk of neural tube defects3.

At least half the cases of neural tube defects could have been prevented if women consumed sufficient folic acid before conception and during early pregnancy3. Some estimates state that consuming enough folic acid, at least 400 micrograms (mcg) per day, can reduce certain birth defects of the brain and spinal cord by more than 70%4.

Folate is found naturally mainly in dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peas and nuts. Fruits rich in folate include oranges, lemons, bananas, melons and strawberries6. Many cereals and pastas are also fortified with folic acid6.

Taking a prenatal vitamin containing at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily4, ideally starting three months before conception, can help ensure that women get enough of this essential nutrient6. A prenatal vitamin such as PregOmega Plus, which is South Africa’s No.1 prenatal choice7, contains not only 500 micrograms of folic acid, but also added omega 3, calcium, vitamin D and magnesium and other vitamins and minerals.

While not all birth defects can be prevented, there are certain things that a woman can do before and during her pregnancy to increase her chances of having a healthy baby. Besides getting 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before falling pregnant, other steps include regular check-ups and prenatal care, not drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs or smoking, as well as preventing infections. Also, check with a healthcare provider about any medications you are taking or think about taking, whether these are prescription, over-the-counter medications or even herbal8.

Please remember to speak to a doctor, pharmacist or gynaecologist about what supplements to take before and during pregnancy.

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