Preventing birth defects, one vitamin at a time

January 09, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

Jill Parker considers herself lucky.

She is as independent as she wants to be, she has a full life that she shares with family and friends and just like many other 22-year-old women, she's starting a career in her chosen field.

But when Parker was born in 1983 with a portion of her spine exposed, the picture for her future didn't look so rosy.

Parker is one of thousands of people living with spina bifida - a birth defect that leaves the spinal cord exposed.


While Parker has full control of the majority of her body, she has no feeling below her waist and is unable to walk.

"I know I'm probably one of the lucky ones. I know other people have it a lot worse," she says.

The spina bifida defect occurs in the first month of pregnancy when a fetus' neural tube fails to close properly. The tube, which becomes the spinal cord, can remain open anywhere along the spine from the baby's lower back to the front of the baby's skull. An infant's prognosis depends on the severity and position of the opening. In some cases spina bifida patients can lead a normal life and even walk, in others the baby dies in infancy.

Spina bifida is the most common "permanently disabling birth defect" in the United States, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Neural tube defects, of which spina bifida is the most common, affect an estimated 3,000 pregnancies each year in the United States.

That's why the Washington County Health Department, in concert with the CDC, is holding a folic acid awareness campaign this week.

Folic acid is vitamin B-9 which is found in leafy green vegetables, liver, kidneys and in enriched breads and cereals. It also can be taken as a vitamin supplement.

Research and reports released by the CDC indicate that when women take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, before a pregnancy occurs, the chance of having a baby with a neural tube defect can be decreased by 50 to 70 percent.

Since 1992, the Public Health Service has recommended women of childbearing ages take folic acid supplements to prevent such birth defects, but the word still hasn't spread to all women, say members of the health department. The department is making a special effort to target the Hispanic community, which has a higher incidence of neural tube defects.

"I think part of the problem is that people have no idea what spina bifida is," says Virginia Emerson, supervisor for the health department's Healthy Start program. "Denial is a big barrier. No woman wants to think she could have a baby with a birth defect."

Joanne Parker, Jill's mother, had no idea about the condition of her baby when she gave birth to her second daughter.

In 1983, "they were just doing studies and they were saying, 'If you had taken folic acid prior to conception, spina bifida could have been avoided.' But I didn't know that," she says. In Jill Parker's first moments of life, she went through multiple surgeries to close the opening in her back and to operate on her club feet.

"If we had known and taken the folic acid before, she wouldn't have had to go through that," Joanne Parker says.

The Washington County Health Department will have more information about taking folic acid to prevent neural tube defects available at the Washington County Free Library on Potomac Street this week and at the health department office, at 1302 Pennsylvania Ave. For more information, call the Nutrition and Wellness Program at the health department at 240-313-3300.

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