By Ella Pickover, Press Association Health Correspondent
Flour in the UK is to be fortified with folic acid in a move to help reduce birth defects, reports suggest.
Medics have long called for the move, saying that it could reduce the incidence of conditions such as spina bifida.
Pregnant women, and those trying to conceive, are urged by health officials to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid, at least until the 12th week of pregnancy.
But many women do not take the supplements – especially if a pregnancy is unplanned.
The NHS Choices website says that folic acid is important to foetus growth and can significantly reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
The Guardian reported that ministers have backed a plan to fortify flour with folic acid – which already happens in more than 80 countries.
It has previously been recommended that wheat flour is fortified with folic acid to improve the “folate status” of the population and reduce the risk of these birth defects.
The newspaper said that the policy would be introduced within weeks.
Kate Steele, chief executive of the charity Shine, which helps families affected by neural tube defects, told the Guardian: “Mandatory fortification will be a game-changer for the UK.
“A Government decision to introduce mandatory fortification will mean a major positive impact for the health and well-being of babies born in the future. In many cases, it will be the difference between life and death.”
Public Health England told the newspaper that fortifying flour with folic acid “is an effective and safe measure to reduce the number of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects”.
A Department of Health and Social care spokeswoman said: “Ministers are considering expert advice and will respond in due course.”
Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) said: “The UK has one of the highest rates of neural tube defects in Europe. Around 1,000 pregnancies are affected every year, and the vast majority will end in the painful decision to terminate what is often a very much wanted pregnancy.
“Most fetal anomalies sadly are not preventable, but those related to folic acid deficiency can be reduced.
“Folic acid fortification is a straightforward public health intervention which will spare hundreds of women the heartbreak of receiving the news that their baby has a serious condition.
“After years of delay, we urge the Government to bring forward folic acid fortification as soon as possible in order to get the best possible pregnancy outcomes for as many women as possible.”
Clare Livingstone, professional policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), welcomed the reports, adding: “Many pregnancies are not planned, meaning many women will not have taken folic acid around the time of conception and very early in their pregnancy.
“This is when folic acid is most effective and that is why this announcement – if correct – is so important.
“This will significantly help to reduce the number of fetal anomalies related to folic acid deficiency.
“This means fewer babies will be born with neural tube defects, and the sooner this is done, the sooner this will start to happen. We urge the Government to introduce this as soon as possible.”