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Spina Bifida Rate High in NC; Folic Acid Key in Prevention

Posted February 11, 2001

— Every year, 200 pregnant women in North Carolina find out their babies havespina bifida. Our state has one of the highest rates of the birth defect in the country. Doctors do not know why this is the case, but they do know how to prevent it.

Ashley Gibbs, 3, is an active little girl who likes to race around her backyard in Wendell. Ashley's twin sister, Christa, needs help getting around. She was born with spina bifida.

"Spina bifida is the result of the failure of the spine to form normally early in pregnancy. It happens before women know they're pregnant," says Dr. Gordon Worley, who runs the Spina Bifida Clinic at Duke Hospital.

"We're one of the two or three states with the most babies born with spina bifida each year," he says.

Susan and Brett Gibbs, the twins' parents, say Christa is treated like any other child.

"She can do chores, she can do schoolwork, she can play," says Susan.

At birth, Ashley was given a clean bill of health, but recently, Susan noticed she was having some problems which include bowel and bladder trouble, falling down frequently and weakness in the legs.

After an MRI, Ashley was diagnosed withspina bifida occulta, a less serious birth defect than her sister's.

"Ten percent of the population has spina bifida occulta," says Worley.

Many people do not even know they have it until they are diagnosed as adults. Only about one in 50 people with occulta show symptoms.

"This bone defect doesn't cause any problems and is quite common in the general population," says Worley.

Doctors do not know what causes spina bifida, but they do know how to prevent it.

Taken before conception,folic acidcan prevent 70 percent of the cases. Susan did not know about folic acid when she was pregnant with the girls.

"Fifty percent of the pregnancies are unplanned, so every woman of child-bearing age should be on a multi-vitamin with folic acid," says Susan.

"If a woman starts taking it after she knows she pregnant, it won't work to prevent spina bifida, it's too late," says Worley.

Some hospitals are operating on fetuses in the womb, but doctors caution the procedure is too new to judge.

"Lots of new treatments have promise, but don't pan out," says Worley.

The good news is that with proper medical attention and lots of support, people with spina bifida can live full lives.

"Most patients with spina bifida have normal intelligence," says Worley. "We expect them to grow up, to earn a living and do well in the world."

"Christa and Ashley are two very special children, just like any parents, we're proud of them for who they are," says their dad, Brett.

As far as the Gibbs are concerned, the sky is the limit for their girls.

Doctors say spina bifida occurs 14 to 28 days after conception before a woman even knows she is pregnant. That is why it is critical to take folic acid at least three months before you get pregnant.

TheCenters for Disease Controlrecommends that all women between the ages of 13 and 50 take a daily multi-vitamin with folic acid. Folic acid can also be found in green, leafy vegetables and orange juice. Are you a woman who has been diagnosed with spina bifida as an adult? If so, we'dlike to hear from you.


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