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'All sexually active women in Northern Ireland should take folic acid', says obstetrician Jim Dornan

Northern Ireland has one of the highest incidences of Spina Bifida

By Amanda Ferguson

Published 27/07/2015

Professor Jim Dornan
Professor Jim Dornan

An eminent obstetrician is urging all sexually active Northern Ireland women to take folic acid.

Professor Jim Dornan, chair of health and life sciences at Ulster University, is backing a Safefood campaign stressing the importance of all women taking folic acid daily to help prevent Neural Tube Defects (NTDs) among newborns.

Research has revealed that around half of pregnancies here are unplanned and less than one in five women have taken folic acid before they become pregnant - so the best approach is for all sexually active women to build this into their daily routine.

Ahead of the campaign launch today (MON) Professor Dornan, also a founding member of the Tiny Life premature baby charity, told the Belfast Telegraph the campaign has been developed to encourage women to take folic acid supplements to help prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spine including spina bifida and hydrocephalus. 

Currently Northern Ireland has one of the highest incidences of these conditions.

Prof Dornan said: “All woman who could be in a position of getting pregnant should be taking folic acid as a normal diet just doesn’t do it.

“If a woman takes extra folic acid from pre-conception onwards she can reduce the incidences of Spina Bifida by two thirds.

“Instead of 20 babies with Spina Bifida being born every year there would be seven.

“There is a culture change in that women have got the message they should take folic acid in early pregnancy but three quarters take it too late.

“In needs to be in the system for the important time of three weeks after conception as that is when the spinal cord is forming.”

Professor Dornan equated a delay with “putting factor 30 on as the sun is setting”.

“We can fortify food but until our governments on these islands decide what to do then women need to take it if there is any chance of them getting pregnant,” he said.

“75 countries in the world fortify their flour with folic acid, including America and Canada. We should be doing this too.”

Professor Dornan said at the beginning of his career he witnessed a baby being born with Spina Bifida every week.

“The message about folic acid got out 20 years ago but we are backsliding,” he said.

“There should be a campaign at every level to promote taking folic acid daily if you are in your fertile years you would be well advised to take it.”

Research by Safefood found that one in 10 young adult women mistakenly believe that they can get enough folic acid from their diet.

Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, Safefood director of Human Health & Nutrition, said: “Taking a daily folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms (mcg) is the only way to go.

“Folic acid is widely available, and doesn’t cost more than a few pence a day.

“Taking folic acid doesn’t mean you are planning a baby but just means when you do have a baby, however far in the future that may be, you are already helping to protect their health.”

For more information visit or follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #FolicFacts


The Neural tube is important in the healthy formation of a baby’s spine and brain and it is formed in the first few weeks of development, before many women are even aware that they are pregnant.

Currently in Northern Ireland on average between 12 and 18 babies are born with NTDs like Spina Bifida every year. 

Taking folic acid daily as a supplement could potentially prevent 70% of these conditions – that could be up to 12 fewer babies affected every year.”

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