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Calls for free folic acid to be given to Irish women as minister considers it ahead of Budget

Taking folic acid every day helps prevent your unborn baby from developing serious and possibly fatal conditions.

Image: Shutterstock/Charles B. Ming Onn

HEALTH MINISTER SIMON Harris has said he will consider the rollout of free folic acid being given to women during Budget talks in the autumn.

Taking folic acid every day helps prevent your unborn baby from developing serious and possibly fatal conditions.

If you’re of childbearing years – and are capable of getting pregnant – medical experts have said women should be taking 400 micrograms of folic acid daily.

A report from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) a number of years ago found that one in five women don’t consume folic acid at all.

Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell raised the issue with the health minister during an Oireachtas committee meeting this week. 

“We have the highest rate of neural tube defects. The incidence of them here is raising at greater rate than anywhere else in Europe,” she said. 

She raised the issue of cost being a barrier to women in buying folic acid regularly, but O’Connell said providing education around the issue “is a simple thing to do”.

O’Connell said the cost of giving free folic acid to women would not cost much in terms of the government’s health budget, adding it could be done “cheaply”. 

Last year, it was reported that folic acid could be added to UK flour to reduce birth defects. However, the Department of Health in Ireland said there were no plans to do so here. 

Free in doctor’s surgeries 

“A first step would be to provide free folic acid for everybody sitting beside a pregnancy test, in a doctor’s surgery or in the newsagents. I do not care where they are sitting once people have access to folic acid,” she added.

Harris said the idea of free folic acid will be looked at in the context of the women’s health action plan. “Work is under way on that plan,” he said, adding that the rollout will be considered in advance of the Budget in October. 

The minister was also asked about the issue of free contraception. In March, Harris announced a working group to examine how to make contraception cheaper for women. 

The group will examine the extent to which cost is a barrier to accessing reliable methods of contraception in Ireland. 

It will also look at whether there are other factors influencing ease of access to contraception which could be addressed. 

Some of the areas the group will look at include financial barriers, legislative barriers, regulatory issues, and contractual issues. 

Free contraception

“Cost should not be a barrier to accessing contraception and I am determined to address this,” Harris said previously. 

“I had a good meeting with colleagues from the HSE’s sexual health unit last week on that and I expect the working group to report to me in September in time for me to try and make provisions in the forthcoming budget,” the minister said this week. 

It is understood that while the cost of paying for the pill may be addressed, considerations are also to be given to the cost barrier of the GP visit women must pay for in order to get the pill.

Consideration is also being given as to whether women should be able to get the pill over the counter. 

Once availing of the contraceptive pill, women also have to pay a visit to their GP every six months or so to assess the effects of the pill on the patient such as their blood pressure levels and also a breast examination.

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