Background: Taking folic acid supplements before pregnancy to reduce the risk of a neural tube defect (NTD) is especially important in countries without universal folic acid fortification. The extent of folic acid supplementation among women who had antenatal screening for Down's syndrome and NTDs at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, London between 1999 and 2012 was assessed.
Methods and findings: 466,860 women screened provided details on folic acid supplementation. The proportion of women who took folic acid supplements before pregnancy was determined according to year and characteristics of the women. The proportion of women taking folic acid supplements before pregnancy declined from 35% (95% CI 34%-35%) in 1999-2001 to 31% (30%-31%) in 2011-2012. 6% (5%-6%) of women aged under 20 took folic acid supplements before pregnancy compared with 40% of women aged between 35 and 39. Non-Caucasian women were less likely to take folic acid supplements before pregnancy than Caucasian women; Afro-Caribbean 17% (16%-17%), Oriental 25% (24%-25%) and South Asian 20% (20%-21%) compared with 35% (35%-35%) for Caucasian women. 51% (48%-55%) of women who previously had an NTD pregnancy took folic acid supplements before the current pregnancy.
Conclusions: The policy of folic acid supplementation is failing and has led to health inequalities. This study demonstrates the need to fortify flour and other cereal grain with folic acid in all countries of the world.