Some countries have introduced mandatory folic acid fortification, whereas others support periconceptional supplementation of women in childbearing age. Several European countries are considering whether to adopt a fortification policy. Projections of the possible beneficial effects of increased folic acid intake assume that the measure will result in a considerable reduction in neural-tube defects (NTD) in the target population. Therefore, the objective of the present study is to evaluate the beneficial effects of different levels of folic acid administration on the prevalence of NTD. Countries with mandatory fortification achieved a significant increase in folate intake and a significant decline in the prevalence of NTD. This was also true for supplementation trials. However, the prevalence of NTD at birth declined to approximately five cases at birth per 10 000 births and seven to eight cases at birth or abortion per 10 000 births. This decline was independent of the amount of folic acid administered and apparently reveals a ‘floor effect’ for folic acid-preventable NTD. This clearly shows that not all cases of NTD are preventable by increasing the folate intake. The relative decline depends on the initial NTD rate. Countries with NTD prevalence close to the observed floor may have much smaller reductions in NTD rates with folic acid fortification. Additionally, potential adverse effects of fortification on other vulnerable population groups have to be seriously considered. Policy decisions concerning national mandatory fortification programmes must take into account realistically projected benefits as well as the evidence of risks to all vulnerable groups.
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