x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Baby protection campaign launched

The UAE Genetic Diseases Association has launched a campaign to make folic-acid tablets readily available, raise awareness and ultimately change the law.

Dr Mariam Matar, the chairwoman of the UAE Genetic Diseases Association that has launched a folic acid awareness campaign.
Dr Mariam Matar, the chairwoman of the UAE Genetic Diseases Association that has launched a folic acid awareness campaign.

DUBAI // For 25 fils a day, women can help to shield their unborn children from devastating disability and save the state up to Dh2.7 million a year.

Neural-tube defects (NTDs), abnormalities that affect the brain and spinal cord, can be prevented in up to 70 per cent of cases if the mother takes a daily supplement of folic acid.

The UAE Genetic Diseases Association has launched a campaign to make folic-acid tablets readily available, raise awareness and ultimately change the law.

The campaign is modelled on a similar effort in China, which was highly successful.

"We are trying to do what China has done," said Dr Maryam Matar, the association founder and chairwoman. "Seventy per cent of NTDs in newborns are caused by folic-acid deficiency.

"China has prevented the delivery of babies with these abnormalities by making sure that a woman who is planning to conceive has enough folic acid.

"In China in 1996, out of 1,000 births, 16 babies had one of these abnormalities. But with their campaign and the preventive approach they've taken, in 2003 the figure dropped to three per 1,000 newly born Chinese.

"They were able to do it with a 1.3 billion population, so the UAE should do it and I hope we produce similar results even faster."

Symptoms of NTDs include paralysis and loss of feeling in the legs or the body below the spinal lesion - or abnormal tissue growth - nerve damage and the accumulation of fluid in the brain.

The best-known example of an NTD is spina bifida, where a section of the spinal cord is exposed through a gap in the backbone.

Newborn babies sometimes spend months having delicate surgery in countries such as Germany and require expensive specialist care to improve their quality of life. NTDs have until now attracted little attention in the UAE, so there are no reliable figures for the number of cases.

But in Oman, the number of babies born with one of the abnormalities averages out at 1.25 for every 1,000, while in the Palestinian Territories the figure is 5.59 for every 1,000.

The UAE Genetic Diseases Association has arranged for folic-acid tablets to be sold in pharmacies under the brand name Manal, the Arabic word for "hope", which is also the name of the campaign.

The central nervous system begins to form very early in the development of the foetus, so women are advised to start taking the supplement at least two months before they plan to conceive.

"Now they are available in almost all the pharmacies," added Dr Matar. "They are manufactured in the UAE by Neopharma of Abu Dhabi."

Dubai Health Authority figures show it costs Dh2.7 million a year to care for a single child with one of these disorders. Yet a three-month supply of Manal tablets costs only Dh23.

A further aim is to press for the introduction of a law requiring makers of wheat imports and breakfast cereals sold in the UAE to fortify their products with folic acid. A similar move in Canada halved the number of NTD cases.

Twenty-five volunteer ambassadors are being recruited in each of the emirates to give presentations on the importance of folic acid in universities and to women's groups.

"We've done a competition among colleges and universities, and one of the students designed the Manal logo," said Dr Matar.

"Three students made a 30-second movie about the campaign for us which will be broadcast by the national channels in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah very soon."

Dr Matar said she recently had difficulty gaining the attention of female students during a recent presentation - until she mentioned some of the other benefits of folic acid.

"One of the students raised her hand and said, 'Let me guarantee the husband, then I'll guarantee the child'," she said.

"I said, 'Folic acid is good for your nails and it gives you pretty skin and healthy, thick hair, so then you will get the husband'.

"Suddenly everybody was awake. They said, 'Can you repeat it from the beginning?'"

csimpson@thenational.ae