Obstetrician and Professor Jim Dornan is encouraging all sexually active women in Northern Ireland to take folic acid. Dornan is supporting the Safefood campaign, aimed at reducing the occurrence of severe neural and spinal birth defects, including hydrocephalus and spina bifida.

Dornan specifically targeted women in Northern Ireland because of the high  incidence of serious birth defects and neural tube defects (NTDs) in the country. In addition, research indicates more than 50 percent of the pregnancies in Northern Ireland are unplanned, and only one in five women take a folic acid supplement before pregnancy. Therefore, Dornan said it is important for such women to add folic acid to their daily routine.

"With such a high rate of unplanned pregnancy, it's important that our folic acid message reaches all women, not those just thinking about having a baby,” said Dornan, the chair of health and life sciences at Ulster University.

Each year, 12 to 18 babies are born with a neural tube defect in Northern Ireland. However, if a woman takes a folic acid supplement daily, nearly 70 percent of such defects could be prevented, Dornan said.

Dornan suggested the government should order foods to be fortified with folic acid. Seventy-five countries, including Canada and the United States, fortify flour with folic acid before supplying it to the consumers.

The BBC reported a new Safefood-funded project will assess first trimester folic acid levels in pregnant women across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The research will help formulate a plan detailing policies and practices regarding folic acid intake.