Professor Fiona Stanley is well known for her work in using biostatistics to research the causes and prevention of birth defects, including establishing the WA Maternal and Child Health Research Database in 1977.
In 1989 Professor Stanley and colleague Professor Carol Bower used another database, the WA birth defects register, to source subjects for a study of neural tube defects (NTDs). The neural tube is what forms the brain and spine in a baby. Development issues can lead to common but incurable birth defects such as spina bifida where the backbone does not close over the spinal cord properly.
The researchers measured the folate intake of 308 mothers of children born with NTDs, other defects, and no defects. They discovered that mothers who take the vitamin folate during pregnancy are less likely to have babies with NTDs. Their data contributed to worldwide research that found folate can reduce the likelihood of NTDs by 70%.
After the discovery Professor Stanley established the Telethon Kids Institute where she continued to research this topic alongside Professor Bower. Together they worked on education campaigns to encourage pregnant women to take folate supplements.
Their great success came in 2009 when the Australian government implemented mandatory folic acid fortification of flour. The need for such legislation is now recognised by the World Health Organisation.
A 2016 review conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that since the flour fortification program’s introduction, levels of NTDs have dropped by 14.4%.
– Cherese Sonkkila
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