Despite years of public health campaigns telling women of child-bearing age to take enough folic acid every day to prevent birth defects, the message doesn't seem to be getting through.

Numbers Are Dropping

The number of women in the US taking folic acid supplements dropped from 40% in 2004 to 33% in 2005, according to a report from the March of Dimes.

A daily supplement of 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid, a vitamin crucial for proper cell growth, can dramatically reduce birth defects of the brain and spine, such as spina bifida. Such problems occur in approximately 3,000 pregnancies every year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Getting that much folic acid isn't difficult-you can take a single vitamin pill or you can get it from folate-rich foods, such as leafy green vegetables and citrus fruits, or from folate-fortified foods, including enriched breads and cereals. Fortifying foods with folic acid has been mandated in the US since 1998, in an effort to boost folate intake.

Take A Multivitamin

Other than repeating the message about the importance of folic acid, most public health officials can't figure out what else might persuade women to follow the advice.

Dr. Tsunenobu Tamura, a professor of nutrition science at the University of Alabama Birmingham, says the focus of the message should be to encourage women to take their vitamins daily, since most contain adequate folate.

A recent study, led by Kathleen Yadrick, a professor of nutrition and food systems at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, seems to support Tamura's theory.

Yadrick and her colleagues studied 100 African American, female college students. "The [result] of this research is that women are more likely to pay attention to things that encourage them to take supplements in general rather than just folic acid," Yadrick says.

Dr. Siobhan Dolan, associate medical director of the March of Dimes, says women need to make taking a multivitamin a daily habit. Taking a multivitamin at the same time every day or leaving the bottle near something associated with a morning ritual, such as a coffee cup or a box of cereal, might help boost compliance, she says.

It's important that all women of child-bearing age follow the advice about multivitamins and folic acid because many pregnancies are unplanned. Dolan says.

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