Mothers and Folic Acid

Women who have trouble metabolizing the vitamin folic acid are at a higher risk of having children with Down syndrome, a discovery by government researchers that raises the question of whether folic acid supplements might fight the syndrome.

Mothers with a genetic abnormality that hinders how the body processes folic acid were 2.6 times more likely to have a child with Down syndrome than mothers without that genetic defect, concludes the study published yesterday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

But the discovery by Food and Drug Administration researchers is only one piece in the complicated puzzle of Down syndrome, Food and Drug Commissioner Jane E. Henney cautioned. That's because millions of women appear to have this genetic abnormality, yet the risk of having a child with Down syndrome actually is small, 1 in 600 births. So something else has to help trigger the devastating condition.

Folic acid is a B vitamin found naturally in leafy green vegetables, beans, tuna, eggs and other foods. Also, in 1998 the government ordered some grain products such as flour, breakfast cereal and pasta to be fortified with folic acid.

Women who eat 400 micrograms of folic acid a day cut in half their chances of having babies with birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, such as spina bifida. Whether a baby develops these defects is determined in the first days after conception, well before a woman knows she is pregnant. And even with food fortification, it can be hard to eat enough. So health experts recommend that every woman of childbearing age take a daily dietary supplement, such as a multivitamin, containing 400 micrograms of folic acid.

There have been hints that folic acid might play a role in preventing other birth defects too, but the FDA research is the first good evidence.

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that combines mental retardation with such physical abnormalities as a broad, flat face and slanting eyes. Affected children are at high risk of heart defects, visual or hearing impairment and other problems. The March of Dimes estimates there are 250,000 Americans with Down syndrome.

Pneumonia Vaccine

The first pneumonia vaccine designed for infants appears to sharply reduce severe childhood cases of the disease and could save hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide.

The vaccine, which will be considered soon for approval in the United States, is intended to protect youngsters from a variety of illnesses caused by the pneumococcus bacteria.

Results were released yesterday at a meeting sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology in San Francisco from a major study of the vaccine's effect on childhood pneumonia. The vaccine has already been shown to lower the risk of earaches, meningitis and blood poisoning resulting from the germ.

Pneumonia caused by pneumococcus accounts for 100 to 150 deaths each year in the United States.