The Health Ministry's effort to encourage women able to conceive to take folic acid to significantly reduce the risk of neural tube disorders in their babies has increased the rate of taking the nutrient by 650 percent since 2000. The ministry said yesterday that only 5.2% of women took folic acid pills before pregnancy, while today it has increased to 34-39% among Jewish women and 26.4% among Arab women. These figures put Israel at the top of the world list of folic acid usage among fertile women, compared to 31% in the US, 26-27% in Canada, 17% in New Zealand and 12% in Japan. Not only does folic acid reduce by 70% the risk of neural tube disorders (infants born with open spinal columns or with a minimal brain, called anencephaly), but it can also minimize congenital heart defects by up to 30%. The pill must be taken daily before conception and during the critical first three months afterwards. As a result of taking folic acid, the rate of neural tube defects per 1,000 live births has declined from 1.2 in Jews and 2.2 in Arabs six years ago to 0.84 in Jews and 1.8 in Arabs in 2002-2003. Today the figures are believed to be even lower. Folic acid is found naturally in fresh green vegetables and pulses and also in folic acid-enriched cereals and breads. Although the ministry wants to require all bread manufacturers to add the nutrient to their products, this has been held up due to fears in the Treasury that it will increase prices and demands from bread manufacturers for financial compensation.