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Release: Jan. 22, 2003

January is designated Birth Defects Prevention Month

Birth defects are the leading cause of death in infants under 1 year of age, affecting 1,600 babies in Iowa and 150,000 babies nationwide each year. To increase awareness of this important public health issue, January has been designated Birth Defects Prevention Month.

The Iowa Birth Defects Registry, based in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, encourages women to learn more about what they can do to increase their chances of having a healthy baby.

"The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms of folic acid each day," said Paul Romitti, Ph.D., director of the Iowa Birth Defects Registry. "Taking folic acid every day before becoming pregnant and in the early weeks of pregnancy can reduce a woman's risk of having a pregnancy affected by neural tube birth defects."

Neural tube defects affect an estimated 4,000 pregnancies each year in the United States. The most common of these defects is spina bifida, the leading cause of childhood paralysis. To meet the daily requirement for folic acid, experts advise women to consume foods rich in folate – such as green leafy vegetables, orange juice and enriched whole grain foods – and to take a folic acid pill or a multivitamin that includes folic acid every day.

A 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that neural tube defects in newborns have declined 19 percent following the folic acid fortification of the nation's grain foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required the addition of increased folic acid to cereals, breads, pastas and other foods labeled "enriched" since 1998.

Other actions that increase the chance of having a healthy baby include attending regular prenatal check-ups, avoiding alcohol, smoking and drugs during pregnancy, and avoiding exposure to toxic substances and chemicals such as cleaning solvents, lead and mercury, some insecticides, and paint.

The Iowa Birth Defects Registry is a statewide reporting system that works with all Iowa hospitals and hospitals in neighboring states that serve Iowans to collect information about birth defects diagnosed among pregnancies of state residents. This information is used to assess trends in their occurrence and mortality within the state and to study potential causes of birth defects.