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A report providing a baseline for evaluating the impact of mandatory folic acid fortification on the prevalence of neural tube defects (NTDs) was released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Neural tube defects, the most common of which is spina bifida, are a group of major congenital anomalies that result from very early disruption in the development of the brain and spinal cord. 

There is strong evidence of substantial reductions in NTD-affected pregnancies among women who consume folic acid around the time of conception.

The mandatory folic acid fortification standard, in place since 2009, requires the addition of folic acid to all wheat flour for bread making.   

The report, Neural tube defects in Australia: prevalence before mandatory folic acid fortification, shows that between 1998 and 2008, the overall prevalence of NTDs fell by an average of 0.22 NTDs per 10,000 births per year.

‘The lowest overall prevalence was recorded in 2008 when there were 10.7 NTDs per 10,000 total births,’ said AIHW spokesperson Associate Professor Elizabeth Sullivan.

‘The report also shows different trends in the prevalence of individual NTDs such as anencephaly, spina bifida and encephalocele.

‘For example, between 1998 and 2008, there was a fall in the overall prevalence of spina bifida, but little apparent change in the prevalence of anencephaly and none for encephalocele.

An unequal distribution in the prevalence of NTDs across certain population groups was also found.

‘Higher prevalence of NTD-affected pregnancies are found at extremes of reproductive age; among women living in areas of relative disadvantage; among women living in remote areas; and among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women,’ Associate Professor Sullivan said.

 The AIHW is a major national agency set up by the Australian Government to provide reliable, regular and relevant information and statistics on Australia's health and welfare.

Canberra, 19 December 2011

Further information: Associate Professor Elizabeth Sullivan, AIHW, tel. (02) 9382 1064, mob. 0439 994 820 

For media copies of the report: Publications Officer 02 6244 1032

Full report: Neural tube defects in Australia: prevalence before mandatory folic acid fortification