Health & Fitness

Lowering autism risk in babies with folic acid

A pregnant woman. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
A pregnant woman. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH  

Adequate consumption of folic acid during pregnancy cushions babies from adverse effects of chemical pesticides.

A new study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal has found that mothers who take sufficient amounts of folic acid - shortly before and after conception - could lower the risk of their unborn babies developing pesticide-related autism disease.

Findings of the research, which was conducted in the United States, show that children born of mothers who took the recommended 800 or more micrograms of folic acid and encountered household or agricultural pesticides were less likely to suffer from autism compared to those who took less amounts of the nutrient.

“We found that mothers with the highest risk were the ones who were exposed to pesticides regularly,” said Dr Rebecca Schmidt, lead author of the study from the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

To alleviate the effects of hazardous chemicals on the development of unborn children, she urged mothers to eliminate or reduce their exposure to pesticides during pregnancy.

But in instances where exposure prevention is difficult, such as among women living near agricultural lands where pesticide use in crop production in rampant, Dr Schmidt noted that sufficient consumption of folic acid could help counter negative effects.

Based on the study, the ideal window for adequate folic acid consumption is three months before, and after conception when the unborn child’s body organs are developing.

The body requires this nutrient during periods of rapid growth so as to facilitate the fast multiplication of cells which happens all the time as a foetus develops in the womb.

Previous reports have shown that Kenyan consumers are exposed to toxic chemicals in their food, owing to the excessive use of pesticides in agriculture.

For instance, a 2014 study by researchers from the University of Nairobi and Strathmore revealed the presence of high pesticide residue levels in tomatoes, kale (sukumawiki), amaranth (mchicha) and mangoes sold in major Kenyan towns.

Another study conducted by KOAN found that food sold in common Nairobi markets was laced with excess chemicals above World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended safe levels.

Yet, folic acid consumption is low among pregnant women in the country. According to the Ministry of Health guidelines, expectant women are advised to take combined folic acid and iron tablets daily from conception to delivery.

Statistics from the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey show that only eight per cent of women take iron tablets alone or in combination with folic acid pills in the first 90 days or more.

Overall, 30 per cent of expectant women fail to take any of these important supplements.

Assumpta Ndumi, regional nutrition adviser at Save the Children stated that low adherence to iron intake is mainly caused by their bitter taste, which worsens nausea or morning sickness symptoms among pregnant women.

Iron and folic acid supplements are offered at no cost in public facilities. However, erratic supplies usually compromise their uptake.

According to Ms Ndumi, women can still get the nutrients by consuming meat products, cereals and plenty of fruits and vegetables during pregnancy. “More awareness is also need so women can understand why it is important for them to have sufficient amounts of these nutrients.”

The highest uptake of the supplements is recorded in Coast and Nyanza region where approximately 13 per cent of pregnant women benefit from the iron and folic acid pills.

On the contrary, only about one per cent of women do so in North Eastern which is the worst hit, followed by Rift valley at four per cent.