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Green, leafy vegetables like spinach leaves are a good source of folic acid. If taken before and during the early stages of pregnancy, folic acid can reduce the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida. (Photo by Debora Cartegena, CDC)

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month, and health organizations across the nation are teaming up to provide resources and strategies to help avoid the leading cause of death for infants.

“Every 4 1/2 minutes a baby is born with a birth defect,” according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Birth defects affect an estimated 2,000 babies in Minnesota each year.

To kick off the monthlong initiative, Jan. 5-11 has been named Folic Acid Awareness Week to shed light on the important role the B vitamin plays in ensuring healthy babies.

Folic acid — found commonly in breakfast cereals, whole grains and dark, leafy vegetables — is a key component in cell growth, according to the National Birth Defects Prevention Network.

“If taken before and during early pregnancy from a multivitamin or fortified foods, folic acid can prevent from 50 percent up to 70 percent of some forms of serious birth defects of the brain and spine,” the NBDPN says.

Called neural tube defects, or NTDs, brain and spine defects form during the first month of pregnancy, according to the National Institutes of Health. One of the most common NTDs is spina bifida, a condition where the fetal spine doesn’t close correctly causing nerve damage and leg paralysis.

Many cereals and grains are enriched in folic acid, but the NBDPN says only around a third of women meet the recommended daily intake of 400 micrograms. The group encourages women to take a multivitamin to fill in dietary gaps.

Getting enough folic acid is important for all women of childbearing age, which will prevent NTDs in unplanned pregnancies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To have an effect, women need to begin taking folic acid at least a month before becoming pregnant.

@Sub heads:Healthy choices

@Normal1:Around 20 percent of birth defects are genetic, and another 10 percent the result of environmental factors such as drug or alcohol use and exposure to certain medications and chemicals, according to the MDH. But the cause of the other 70 percent of cases remains unclear.

Although some birth defects are unavoidable, mothers can reduce the risk by following a healthy lifestyle and taking certain precautions before and during pregnancy. The MDH offers the following health guidelines:

•Manage chronic maternal illnesses such as diabetes or seizure disorders.

•Receive regular checkups with a health care professional.

•Reach and maintain a healthy weight before becoming pregnant.

•Avoid alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use.

•Avoid contact with toxic substances at home and work.

•Ensure protection against intimate partner violence.

•Use contraception if taking medication that increases the risk for birth defects.

•Know family medical history and potential genetic risks.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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