Background and methods: Periconceptional administration of folic acid can reduce a woman's risk of having a fetus or infant with a neural-tube defect. As part of a public health campaign conducted from 1993 to 1995 in an area of China with high rates of neural-tube defects (the northern region) and one with low rates (the southern region), we evaluated the outcomes of pregnancy in women who were asked to take a pill containing 400 microg of folic acid alone daily from the time of their premarital examination until the end of their first trimester of pregnancy.
Results: Among the fetuses or infants of 130,142 women who took folic acid at any time before or during pregnancy and 117,689 women who had not taken folic acid, we identified 102 and 173, respectively, with neural-tube defects. Among the fetuses or infants of women who registered before their last menstrual period and who did not take any folic acid, the rates of neural-tube defects were 4.8 per 1000 pregnancies of at least 20 weeks' gestation in the northern region and 1.0 per 1000 in the southern region. Among the fetuses or infants of the women with periconceptional use of folic acid, the rates were 1.0 per 1000 in the northern region and 0.6 per 1000 in the southern region. The greatest reduction in risk occurred among the fetuses or infants of a subgroup of women in the northern region with periconceptional use who took folic acid pills more than 80 percent of the time (reduction in risk, 85 percent as compared with the fetuses or infants of women who registered before their last menstrual period and who took no folic acid; 95 percent confidence interval, 62 to 94 percent) [corrected]. In the southern region the reduction in risk among the fetuses or infants of women with periconceptional use of folic acid was also significant (reduction in risk, 41 percent; 95 percent confidence interval, 3 to 64 percent).
Conclusions: Periconceptional intake of 400 microg of folic acid daily can reduce the risk of neural-tube defects in areas with high rates of these defects and in areas with low rates.