Health & Wellbeing
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The story of folate (vitamin B9) is one of outstanding achievements which have advanced major areas of medical practice and also of scandals of international significance.
Folate was the only one of the 13 vitamins to have been discovered by a woman, Lucy Wills. She showed in1931 that the yeast extract Marmite could cure the anaemia of pregnant women in Bombay. The vitamin, first isolated from spinach, was subsequently shown not only to correct anemia but also to prevent the birth of babies with the severe defect spina bifida. The first effective anti-bacterial drugs and anti-cancer drugs were anti-folates.
The scandals in the story of folate include the opposition, mainly by men, to women becoming doctors, the lack of any public recognition of Lucy Wills’s achievements, the vicious treatment the British Government gave to Waldemar Haffkine who had made for them the world’s first two anti-bacterial vaccines and saved millions of lives, and the incorrect use of folic acid to treat pernicious anaemia leading to irreversible paralysis.
The most significant scandal, the failure of worldwide fortification of the diet with folic acid. This catastrophe allows thousands of babies to be born each year with the major birth defect spina bifida ,which could be prevented by this cheap, safe public health measure, already mandated for in over 80 countries, in North America since 1998.
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