Folate-preventable congenital anomalies: using the WHO research strategy to guide effective actions in public health

WHO Sponsored symposium

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, 11 November 2014
III World Congress of Public Health Nutrition: The Core of the International Cooperation for Development
Location: Auditorio Alfredo Krauss, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
10:30- 12:30, Sala Tenerife

Scope and purpose

Birth defects are among the leading causes of childhood death, chronic illness, and disability in many countries, with an estimated 270 000 deaths globally caused by congenital anomalies. WHO/CDC have been collaborating to address both the risk factors and prevention strategies that can significantly reduce the burden, while also building capacity in country to accurately collect surveillance data.

The WHO strategy on research for health, which was put forward at the 63rd World Health Assembly, involves five areas of research activity:

  • measuring the problem;
  • understanding its cause(s);
  • elaborating solutions;
  • translating the solutions or evidence into policy, practice and products; and
  • evaluating the effectiveness of solutions.

The WHO/CDC collaboration adapted this strategy to address the prevention of congenital anomalies, particularly folate-preventable neural tube defects, by:

  • identifying appropriate biomarkers of folate status for assessing the magnitude and distribution of insufficient folate status;
  • understanding the biological, environmental and social determinants of folate status and neural tube defects;
  • providing evidence-informed guidelines on interventions for improving folate nutrition and health outcomes;
  • understanding challenges and opportunities for implementing effective interventions; and
  • strengthening surveillance of neural tube defects for monitoring and evaluating the impact of these interventions.

The overall objective of this session is to update the nutrition community on current knowledge about the prevention of congenital anomalies, in particular folate-preventable neural tube defects. The specific objectives are to:

  • Describe the challenges in birth defects and folate status surveillance
  • Present on key genetic determinants of folate metabolism and associations with congenital anomalies
  • Provide an overview of the research and guideline development process for the determination of an optimal blood folate concentration range in women of reproductive age for the prevention of neural tube defects
  • Discuss interventions for increasing folic acid intake in women of reproductive age for the prevention of neural tube defects


The symposium will include the following five presentations followed by questions and answers:

  • Global burden of neural tube defects and folate status: understanding the magnitude and distribution of the problem. Dr Luz Maria De-Regil (Micronutrient Initiative)
  • Genetic variation in folate metabolism and congenital anomalies. Dr Maria Tejero (Instituto Nacional de Medicina Genómica)
  • WHO guideline: blood folate concentrations in women of reproductive age for the prevention of NTDs. Dr Juan Pablo Peña-Rosas (WHO)
  • Guidelines for improving folate status and health outcomes in populations. Dr Lisa Rogers (WHO)