Belfast Telegraph

Nigel Dodds: A crusade close to my heart that will lead to major health benefits

Nigel Dodds with son Andrew in 1998
Nigel Dodds with son Andrew in 1998

By Nigel Dodds

In 1990 our son Andrew was born. The birth of any child is met with great anticipation and expectation. Andrew was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, which came as a shock to us but it changed our lives.

Since Andrew's death, just before his ninth birthday in 1998, myself and Diane have campaigned to see folic acid fortification introduced. Our reasons are obvious.

He was a bright, cheerful boy. The lives of those who came into contact with him were enriched, and our lives were certainly enriched by having him. However, as Andrew grew older there were more severe effects. Of course, that did not just affect him. He was hospitalised many times and had shunt operations and setbacks - this has an impact on our family life and wider family. We were fortunate to have had great family back-up and support, but in many cases people do not have that.

The approach of governments previously to offer advice, education and information on supplementing diets with folic acid has not worked. That is clear.

It is widely recognised that taking the B vitamin folic acid during pregnancy can help prevent certain brain and spine birth defects, known as neural tube defects (NDT).

This issue is too important to be ignored any longer. A simple change in the law can save lives.

The most effective way of increasing folic acid intake within the population is through the fortification of flour, which has been shown to have no side-effects. Since folic acid fortification was introduced in the United States of America in 1998, it is estimated that around 1,300 babies are born each year without an NTD who might otherwise have been affected.

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Other countries have taken the lead such as Australia and New Zealand and it's time the UK follow these examples, all of which have compelling results. In fact, the year Andrew died compulsory fortification of folic acid in flour was introduced in 77 countries.

As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on folic acid fortification at Westminster, I warmly welcome that a UK-wide consultation is now getting underway. Clearly, we would wish that it had happened earlier, but we are delighted it has reached this stage now. Many people have been involved in reaching this stage, not least Shine, a charity which operates in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK.

They have done tremendous work in campaigning on the issue over many years, in addition to the work they are doing to help families who have someone with spina bifida or hydrocephalus in the family and who have lost someone who had these conditions.

Andrew had eight years of a wonderful life, in the sense that he was loved and gave so much love, but the problems he had and faced throughout that short life were very difficult for him and for the rest of his family.

We would love to see children being born without having to have these conditions.

They do not need to be. We now have to move on with this issue. There is no good reason not to.

You can get involved with the consultation by responding online: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/adding-folic-acid-to-flour

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