The prevalence of neural tube defects (NTDs) in northern China remains high after 10 years since periconceptional supplementation with folic acid has been known to be effective in reducing the risk of NTDs.
The objectives of this study were to characterize folic acid awareness and use and to examine the association between folic acid supplementation with blood folate concentrations among early pregnant women in an area with a high prevalence of NTDs in northern China.
From December 2002 to February 2004, 693 early pregnant women were recruited and interviewed about folic acid awareness, knowledge and use. Four millilitres of venous blood was drawn and blood folate concentrations were measured.
About 36% of women reported having ever heard of folic acid. Of these, 82.7% knew that folic acid can prevent NTDs, and 64.5% knew the best time to take it. Overall, 15% of women reported having ever taken folic acid. However, only 34.3% had begun to take it before the last menstrual period. Women with less education (21.1%), farmers (19.6%), rural dwellers (23.5%), and women who had a previous child (23.0%) were less likely to be aware of folic acid, and were less likely to take folic acid. Among women who had ever heard of folic acid, 37.5% took it during current pregnancy, compared with only 2.0% among those who had not. Women who were aware of folic acid were 25 times more likely to take it than women who were not. Overall, 44% of women had plasma folate deficiency, and 35% had red cell folate deficiency. Those who reported having ever taken folic acid had a lower rate of plasma folate deficiency (13.7%), compared with those who reported not taking folic acid (49.4%). The former group's mean plasma concentrations were twice as high as those of the latter group.
The levels of folic acid awareness, knowledge and use among Chinese women living in a high NTD prevalence area during early pregnancy were very low and folate deficiency was quite prevalent. Campaigns aimed at increasing the awareness, knowledge, and periconceptional use of folic acid should target to less educated, parous women and women living in rural areas.