UCL News


Britain accused of lagging in battle against birth defects

31 January 2006

Thousands of unnecessary abortions have taken place in the past decade because the government has failed to act on recommendations that food should be fortified with folic acid, a major study says today.

Britain lags behind other developed countries in the use of the acid to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida, says Professor Bernadette Modell [UCL Centre for Health Informatics & Multiprofessional Education and UCL Primary Care & Population Sciences], the British co-author of the report on the global toll of birth defects. …

Professor Modell … says the impact of birth defects is particularly severe in middle- and low-income countries, where 95 per cent of the deaths of such children occur. But neural tube defects, at least 1.3 per 1,000 births, are more common in Britain than in countries of similar wealth.

Professor Modell says the debate about fortifying food - flour - with folic acid has focused on children born with neural tube defects, when the condition is often diagnosed in the womb and the pregnancy terminated.

At present there are about 830 affected pregnancies in Britain every year. Of those, there is an average of 675 terminations, 30 stillbirths and 125 live births.

Professor Modell says: "The evidence is that folic acid fortification of flour at the levels recommended in the United Kingdom could reduce affected pregnancies by about 50 per cent and higher levels of supplementation would be even more effective. About 335 terminations, 17 stillbirths and 60 or so affected live births would be replaced by healthy babies every year."

She says she estimates that over the past 10 years there have been 3,370 avoidable late abortions, 166 avoidable stillbirths and 624 avoidably affected children because of the failure to implement food fortification. …

The research was sponsored by the March of Dimes charity, an American voluntary health agency whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.

Roger Highfield, Science Editor, 'The Daily Telegraph',  31 January 2006