NTDs (spina bifida, encephalocele and anencephaly) are severe forms of birth defect that may be incompatible with life or cause serious disability. However, up to 70% of cases can be prevented by ensuring that women receive adequate dietary intake of folic acid before conception. The second annual report on NTD prevention in Europe from the International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus has found that cases have hardly declined in the last twenty years – more than 4,500 pregnancies are affected each year across Europe, of which it is estimated that 72% are terminated.
The report calls for policy makers to take prompt action to address this problem, noting that existing policies fail to recognise that around half of all pregnancies in Europe are unplanned and that the impact of pre-conceptual medical advice is therefore limited. Instead, the report proposes that countries adopt WHO recommendations on folic acid intake in women of childbearing age and explore new ways of communicating effectively to these women, including via health and sex education in schools.
Comment: The need to adopt realistic approaches to public health problems is highlighted here; even in well-resourced countries, there is apparently more to be done to encourage the use of simple preventative measures against these common and very serious forms of birth defect.