Epidemiologist and folate expert honoured by Order of Australia

The undeniable success story of mandatory folate fortification has garnered epidemiologist Professor Carol Bower the highest recognition for achievement and service – the Companion (AC) in the Order of Australia today at the King’s Birthday Honour List.

“I feel very honoured,” she told Cosmos.  

“My initial response was that I was just doing my job and I didn’t really deserve the honour. But I’ve accepted it, because I hope that all the wonderful people with whom I’ve worked over the years see it as a recognition of their contribution.”

Bower has spent her career looking at children’s health research – establishing the first birth defects registry in Australia, helping to mandate folic acid fortification in flour to stop neural tube defects in infants, and more recently researching Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

Her 36-year career in this field started in 1980 with the birth defects registry in Western Australia, which was set up partially due to ongoing issues from the Vietnam War.

“In Australia there wasn’t a collection of information on birth defects,” she told Cosmos.

“But there was concern about Australian – and other – veterans from Vietnam that had been or might have been exposed to Agent Orange, and whether that exposure caused birth defects in their offspring.”

What Bower and another researcher on the team, Professor Fiona Stanley, were able to garner instead was an insidious threat closer to home – neural tube defects from a lack of folate in the diet.

“We undertook a case control study where we interviewed women who just had a baby with a neural tube defect, a group of women who’d had a baby with another birth defect, and another group who’d had a baby that didn’t have any birth defects,” Bower told Cosmos.

“I really want to say how grateful we were to those women because this was at a time of great personal tragedy.”

This research found that folate – particularly in very early pregnancy – was causing the neural tube defects. This eventually led to the mandatory fortification of folate in flour in 2009 and rates of the defects fell drastically as a result.

Since then, Bower has worked on other birth defects and aspects of children’s health research, but says that the most difficult to tackle is by far FASD.

“It’s much more complicated than folate and neural tube defects,” she told Cosmos.

“I hope it doesn’t take as long as folate did, but I think it probably will. I mean we knew about foetal alcohol spectrum disorder or foetal alcohol syndrome in 1973, so it’s taken a long time.”

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