Nearly one in every five Iowa pregnancies is complicated by a birth defect, while nationwide, about 150,000 infants are born with birth defects every year – the leading cause of infant mortality.

Folic acid is one way to combat birth defects. Alina Flores, a health education specialist at the National Center on Birth Defects, says folic acid is necessary for proper cell growth when a woman is pregnant, and she’s trying to get the word out.

Flores says they’re working to "reach women who are capable of becoming pregnant, so women of childbearing age, and letting them know about the importance of folic acid in relation to the prevention of some serous birth defects of the brain and spine."

Common birth defects in Iowa include: heart defects, Down syndrome, cleft lip and cleft palate. She says folic acid has been in the news in recent years so many women know it’s important, but are still fuzzy on how to get it.

"When you ask them what it is, they really don’t know specifics about it," Flores says. "They don’t know the benefits of it and they don’t take folic acid until they’re pregnant. Once the neural tube forms the brain and spine, that forms about the third week of pregnancy when most women don’t know they are pregnant yet. So, we really try to reach women before they’re pregnant and have them start consuming enough folic acid before they become pregnant." Flores says all women of child-bearing age should take the daily recommended dose of folic acid.

"Only one-third of women of childbearing age are getting the amount of folic acid they need," she says. "That leaves two-thirds of women who are not and we’re really trying to reach that group of women." Researchers say folic acid also plays a big role in protection against heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Flores says folic acid is available in many forms, including tablets, multi-vitamins, fortified breads, rice, pastas and cereals. This is National Folic Acid Awareness Week.