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Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 11:49 EDT

Preventing Birth Defects

June 17, 2011

(Ivanhoe Newswire) ““ There are nearly 3,000 pregnancies each year in the United States where babies have birth defects of the brain and spine known as neural tube defects (NTD). Hispanic women have the highest rate of these defects when compared to other ethnic groups. However, according to the March of Dimes, a new initiative could decrease the rate of neural tube defects by fortifying corn masa flour with the B vitamin folic acid.

Though, since 1998 the rate of birth defects of the brain and spine, including spina bifinda and anencephaly, have decreased by nearly one-third, when the FDA mandated fortification of enriched cereal grains such as bread and pasta with folic acid. But despite the success, Hispanic women are still about 20 percent more likely to have a child with an NTD than non-Hispanic white women, according to the National Birth Defects Prevention Network.

“Fortification of cereal grains with folic acid in 1998 is a public health success story. Adding this B vitamin to corn masa flour will build on that initiative and begin to address the disparities in these birth defects,” Alan R. Fleischman, M.D., March of Dimes medical director and lead author of the commentary, was quoted saying.

“Despite the fact that fortification has given thousands of babies a healthy start in life, it is imperative we address this serious health problem in the Hispanic community. Public health officials and businesses must work together to expand the success of folic acid fortification to corn masa and to the Hispanic community in the U.S.,” Dr. Fleischman said.

Common in Latin American diets is corn masa flour, which is made from specially treated corn and used to make foods such as corn tortillas and tamales. Dr. Fleischman writes that by targeting traditional Hispanic food made with corn masa for folic acid fortification, it would be possible to lower the rate of NTDs among Hispanics, particularly Mexican-Americans. Studies have shown that folic acid works if taken before conception and during early pregnancy.

Approval by the Food and Drug Administration is critical in order for corn masa flour products to be fortified with folic acid. Many countries in Latin America interested in public health measures known to prevent neural tube defects already fortify their food products with folic acid, including Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico. This safe and effective public health intervention can successfully decrease birth defects.

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, June 15, 2011.