The number of Australian babies born with spinal cord defects has not
dropped in the past decade despite improved diagnosis and education of

A new report from the Australian Institute of Health
and Welfare has tracked recent trends in neural tube defects like spina
bifida, a major congenital abnormality caused by very early disruption
in a baby’s brain and spine development.

Results show teenage
mothers, indigenous women and those living in remote areas were most
likely to have a neural tube defect-affected pregnancy.

pregnancies were also more likely to have neural tube defects than
singleton pregnancies,” said Dr Samanthi Abeywardana of the institute’s
National Perinatal Statistics Unit.

About 520 babies were born
with the defects between 1998 and 2005, and a further 421 stillbirths
and late-stage terminations were affected.

“There was no
significant decrease in neural tube defects among births during the
period, despite early diagnosis, health education and health promotion
programs and voluntary fortification of food with folic acid,” the
report states.

There has been increasing evidence that boosting
intake of folic acid during the period around conception helps protect
against defects.

“In light of this evidence, Australia will join
many other developed countries in implementing mandatory folic acid
fortification of bread making flour to minimise the births affected
with neural tube defects,” Abeywardana said.

The program, which starts next September, is expected to prevent between 14 and 49 defects a year.

of bread with iodised salt will be introduced at the same time to boost
levels of the vital mineral which is needed for a baby’s healthy brain

Both moves were heavily opposed by bakers and some
health specialists on the grounds that it represented the medication of
the food chain and may drive up the price of bread.