Following a study carried out in Dublin's Coombe hospital, which revealed that less than one-quarter of pregnant women had taken folic acid before conceiving, Irish obstetricians have called for a major public campaign to highlight the importance of folic acid supplementation.

It has been proven that taking folic acid can cut neural -tube defects by 70%, so doctors were concerned to note that there had been a 27% increase in the number of operations carried out on children suffering from spina bifida.

Drawing attention to the disparity, doctors raised concerns with the HSE and have since urged women to include the supplement in their diet, with UCD professor of obstetrics, Michael Turner, saying: "You shouldn't wait until you are pregnant to take folic acid. Any woman who could get pregnant should be taking it."

Medical professionals assert that these conditions are largely preventable through the intake of folic acid, but acknowledge that the production of food products fortified with folic acid has declined.

Commenting on the motivation behind the study and the implications for an infant born with a condition such as spina bifida, Prof. Turner said: "This is a horrendous, lifelong health burden which is largely preventable so we started to research why it was happening."

Offering reasons for the low levels of folic acid supplementation in Irish women's diets, Prof. Turner questioned whether austerity played a role and suggested that people were not in a position to pay for higher-quality food known for folic acid fortification.

In addition to this, UCD research fellow and obstetrician Aoife Keating said low levels of folic acid supplementation was a factor in unplanned pregnancy, saying: "The risk of unplanned pregnancy is highest among women under the age of 20, who are unemployed or have a history of depression or domestic violence."

As a result of their findings, experts in the field have called on the government to update their public health advice.

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