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Folic Acid Key To Preventing Some Birth Defects

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RALEIGH — While it seems hard to believe, when expecting moms take one simple vitamin, it can prevent their babies from having particular birth defects. That vitamin is folic acid.

The March of Dimes wants to start a campaign to tell more moms to take it, but finding money for it is a tough sell during a tough state budget year.

Three-year-old Elizabeth Wagner gets around with her walker as well as most toddlers do on two feet. Elizabeth has spina bifida, a neural tube defect that left her paralyzed from the knees down.

"Since the minute they came into the recovery room and told me my newborn baby wasn't moving her legs, until now, that's what we've had to live with," said her mother, Jolyne Wagner.

Elizabeth's case is not unusual. But it can be prevented.

"If (women) take folic acid prior to conception, 50-70% of those affected pregnancies will not not be born with the neural tube defects," said Wagner.

The March of Dimes wants to launch a public awareness campaign about folic acid, and expand a program that tracks birth defects like spina bifida. They requested just over $1 million from the state to cover both programs. Right now, $200,000 in funding is slated.

"I don't understand why legislators aren't more concerned about the rates (of birth defects). Being 46th out of 50 in infant mortality is certainly nothing to be proud of, " said Sarah Verbiest of The March Of Dimes.

"We've got to say, what is our stewardship, what is our responsibility, and (addressing this issue) is our responsibility," said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Carrboro.

Members of the women's caucus are fighting for at least $400,000 in funding. Mothers like Wagner hope the rest of the legislature will agree to make an investment in the health of the youngest North Carolinians.

"I can't imagine why that wouldn't be first and foremost on their minds," said Wagner.

Similar programs have had good results elsewhere. South Carolina's rate of neural tube defects dropped by half after the state started a folic acid campaign. The state also saved $26 million in Medicaid costs, because fewer babies were born with expensive health problems.