“Europe has an epidemic of spina bifida and anencephaly compared with countries with mandatory folic acid fortification policy,” said researchers from Europe and the US.
They said Europe’s prevalence was 1.6 times higher than in countries with folic acid food fortification programmes.
“Between years 2000 through 2010, a total of 7478 pregnancies with spina bifida and anencephaly out of approximately nine million births were caused by the failure of European governments to introduce folic acid fortification on a population level,” they wrote in the journal Birth Defects Research.
For all neural tube defects this stood at about 8,400 cases.
They said promoting voluntary folic acid supplements for women of reproductive age had proven ineffective in lowering the risk of NTDs in Europe – with prevalence per 10,000 births still high in many EU countries like Denmark (13.84 per 10,000), UK (12), Netherlands (11.38) and France (10.62).
Instead mandatory fortification was needed to “save lives and significant public health costs”.
In Germany alone there would have been 293 fewer pregnancies affected with spina bifida each year and up to €32.9 million saved in additional direct lifetime medical costs among children born alive with spina bifida compared with the general population.
Neural tube defects are caused by the incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord and/or their protective coverings and occur when the foetus’ spine fails to close properly.
The paper used birth data from member states on the European Surveillance of Congenital Anomalies (EUROCAT), which included nine million births or about 20% of the EU population.
The cost of NTDs
They said fortification should be considered within the context of Europe’s ten-year economic growth strategy, which aimed to keep people healthy and active for longer.
The social and actual cost of NTDs was huge. A Dutch study estimated the total direct and indirect lifetime expenditures for an individual with NTD was €242,948.
Meanwhile a German study using health insurance data estimated an average annual health care expenditure of €4532 for an individual with spina bifida, which was substantially higher than the general population. Health costs for one year olds with spina bifida were five times higher than children without the condition.
Mandatory flour fortification with folic acid has already been imposed in Canada and the US – yet no European countries have followed suit.
However in June this year the UK government put forward a bill proposing folic acid be added to the list of mandatory micronutrients used to fortify wheat flour under the Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 - movement seen after decades of debate.
The issue was first raised back in the 1990s when a UK Medical Research Council trial suggested folic acid (vitamin B9) could help reduce the risk of neural tube defects by up to 72%.