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Pregnancy: Neural Tube Defects

Volume 767: debated on Monday 21 December 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any proposals to minimise the risk of neural tube defective pregnancy in women of reproductive age.

My Lords, the Government are looking at all aspects of preconception health. This includes the uptake of folic acid, which can reduce the risks of neural tube defects. Women are advised to take a supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid from several weeks before conception until the 12th week of pregnancy. This information is available on the NHS Choices website.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on four occasions his predecessor told the House that the Government were awaiting information on blood folate levels? It was published nine months ago yesterday and we have had no statement whatever about it. Has the Minister had the chance to look at the scientific paper published last week showing that, if the UK had adopted white bread flour fortification at the same time as the United States of America, there would have been 2,000 fewer neural tube defect-affected pregnancies in the UK? There is now a spina bifida epidemic in Europe, which there is not in the 80 countries that fortify flour with folic acid. Surely it is time for action.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the extraordinary work that he has done in this field and for giving this very important and tragic issue a greater degree of public awareness. My honourable friend in the other House, Jane Ellison, the Minister for Public Health, is considering her response to the report that the noble Lord referred to and to the report by the SACN, the committee on nutrition, published on 20 October. I expect that she will come to a decision early in the new year.

My Lords, given the importance for the health of the foetus of folic acid being taken by women before they are pregnant, will the Minister work with his colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that all young women—and young men—know the importance of taking folic acid long before they even think of becoming pregnant?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. When you know you are pregnant, it is too late to start taking folic acid, and that is the fundamental reason why the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is pushing for fortifying flour with folic acid. However, she is absolutely right that education is fundamental to this as well.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the best tribute that he could pay to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and his campaign would be to make an early and positive decision on the fortification of white flour in this country? How long are the Government going to go on not taking any notice of either the scientific evidence or the evidence in practice from 78 other countries? I remember the definitive trial proving the benefit of folic acid in pregnancy in 1991. We have seen that advice alone does not work. When will the Government take action?

My Lords, as I said in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, this matter is being actively considered by the Minister for Public Health, and she expects to come to a decision very early in the new year.

My Lords, we have unanimous feeling here. I was going to quote the statement made on a previous occasion by the noble Lord opposite that, really, we in this House are pretty well unanimously in favour of this and cannot see anything wrong with it, and yet the action has not followed.

My Lords, when my noble friend says that this House is almost unanimously agreed she may well be right. However, the decision on this matter has to be taken in the other House. As I said, my honourable friend Jane Ellison, the Minister for Public Health, is going to come to a decision very quickly.

My Lords, we seem to have been for ever on this particular question. There is an irrational fear that somehow it is dangerous to fortify flour, and this has held up people in some way or other. But scientifically that does not bear fruit. It is clear from all the experience around the world of many years of fortifying flour with folic acid that it does work. We should be doing it here now.

My Lords, I am certainly not going to argue on clinical grounds with the noble Lord, who knows far more about this than I do. However, the issues are not purely clinical; they are to do with the mass medication of the whole population to reach a very small minority of women of child-bearing age. There are also some administrative issues to do with making sure that people do not take too much folic acid, as some cereals have folic acid added to them. However, I understand exactly what the noble Lord is saying, and can only repeat that the Minister for Public Health is reviewing this now.

Can I surprise the Minister and not necessarily upset my noble friend Lord Rooker, but put down a word of caution? I agree with what the Minister has just said about having great caution when we involve ourselves in any mass medication—I have a history of being awkward on these issues, including mass medication through the water supply. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is an effective way of tackling the problem, but I have every concern that it is a slippery slope that we go down with great care.

My Lords, I think they were helpful and wise words from the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. This is a difficult issue, and it is not as black and white as is sometimes portrayed. As I said, my honourable friend in the other House is taking all these matters into consideration.

My Lords, I must inform the House that I am president of the Fluoridation Society. Therefore, although I always welcome my noble friend Lord Blunkett’s interventions, perhaps I welcome this one not quite as much as usual. I have great respect for the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Public Health, and know that she is committed to public health. But she has had the evidence from the research, which caused the Government to delay a decision, for nine months. Is it not a fact that she cannot get agreement inside government, and that the Government have decided not to go ahead? Is not it time for them to be straight on this?

My Lords, I do not think that what the noble Lord has said is entirely correct. My honourable friend Jane Ellison received a letter from the SACN, the committee on nutrition, on 20 October that indicated that many more women were below the foliate level than had previously been thought. That evidence is quite new and came in at the end of October. That is what she is now considering.

My Lords, the Minister has said that he is against mass medication. Do we really think that this is mass medication? We are talking about adding to flour micro amounts of nutrition that is lacking, to give a choice to people: if they intend to get pregnant, they eat bread made from that flour and not unfortified flour.

Just to correct the noble Lord. I did not say that I was against mass medication; I said that it was one of the things that should be considered. It is also worth saying that, even if there was mass medication, it probably would affect between 15% and 30% of women who have babies with neural tube defects and not all women.