Health News Review

Like a Reuters Health story we also reviewed, this story has an enticing headline about an apparent link between folic acid supplements and reduced risk of autism. But it then explains to readers how to put the results in perspective.

Our Review Summary

This story includes appropriate caution about jumping to conclusions that folic acid can indeed prevent some cases of autism, as well as the size of any potential effect. It does a better job than the Reuters Health story of explaining why a study of women in Norway may not be relevant to women in the US. But the Reuters Health story probably does a better job of telling readers how small the underlying autism risk is in Norway. This LA Times blog post, though, graded slightly better than a CNN blog post on the same study.


Why This Matters

Stories that may encourage millions of people to change behavior in order to possibly, but not certainly, affect a small risk, should proceed with caution. But since folic acid supplementation is already strongly recommended to reduce the risk a baby may be born with spina bifida or other neural tube defects, reporting on this research is important,  even if any potential benefit appears to be relatively small and tentative.


Criteria

Not Applicable

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Not applicable.  No discussion of costs, but since folic acid supplement pills cost only a few cents each, the omission is not important.

Satisfactory

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

This story reports both the raw data differences in autism risk between the folic acid and non-folic acid groups (a 2-to-1 difference) and the much smaller 39 percent difference the researchers reported after adjusting for education and other maternal characteristics. However, by stating the overall absolute risk of a child with autism as 0.13% instead of about 1 in a thousand, readers of this story may not get as good an understanding of the absolute risks as readers of the Reuters Health story we also reviewed.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

This is a tough call.

The US Preventive Services Task Force and other expert bodies state that there is no evidence of potential harm from recommended levels of folic acid supplementation. But there are hypothetical, yet plausible concerns about harmful effects of getting too much folic acid, especially an increase in cancer risk. This is why many countries have not embraced mandatory folic acid fortification of the food supply. The story could have mentioned this.

The point is that there are always potential harms.  This is not a risk-free substance.  Stories may not always find the time/space to delve into hypothetical/plausible potential harms, but we wish they would.

Satisfactory

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

This story is cautious in its language, emphasizing “link…association…more likely” and avoiding cause-and-effect inferences.  It includes details about possible factors besides folic acid supplements that could explain differences (such as education, smoking, whether the pregnancy was planned) and that researchers adjusted their results to try to account for those factors. This story also has a clear discussion of the underlying differences between autism risk in Norway and the US and how caution should be exercised in applying study results from one country to the other.

Satisfactory

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story mentions the puzzlement about why rates of autism appear to be rising in the US, thus giving readers a sense of how much remains unknown about potential causes or responses.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

Unlike the Reuters Health story (which quoted two independent sources), this one does not include comments from an independent source, just a quote from a journal editorial (and that quote doesn’t directly address the quality of the evidence). The competing CNN.com story (also a blog post), reviewed a day earlier, had three independent sources.

Not Applicable

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

There are no broadly-recommended ways to reduce autism risk.

Satisfactory

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

It is clear that folic acid supplements are widely available and have long been recommended for women considering pregnancy.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story reports the long-standing recommendation that women considering pregnancy take folic acid supplements and that many common foods are already fortified with the vitamin.

But it could have noted that at least one other study has documented an association between folic acid use and reduced autism risk. The JAMA paper on which the story is based cites several prior reseach efforts showing association with folate in early pregnancy and severe language delay or autism.

Satisfactory

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 8 Satisfactory


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